Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break (Steven Sherrill)

The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break, Steven Sherrill
Read: 7 October to 8 October 2012
5 / 5 stars

Seven pages in, a passage that ostensibly illustrates the bond between M -- the titular smoking hybrid who's now safely mundane against the backdrop of the modern world -- and one of his friendlier coworkers actually betrays the lonely core of the Minotaur’s five-millennia-old being:

Cecie keeps telling him she’d like to take him home some night, husband or no. The Minotaur waits hopefully. Husband or no.

(Believe me: It’s brutally sad in context.)

Not to be outranked on the Don't You Want to Actively Seek out This Character so You Can Befriend and Hug Him? scale of heartstring-tugging insights into a traditionally antagonistic creature, a paragraph on the 100th page's recto side brings the dual, tormented nature of M’s existence into aching clarity with a tiny inkling of what it does to someone to live as a monstrous outsider for five thousand years:

The architecture of the Minotaur’s heart is ancient. Rough hewn and many chambered, his heart is a plodding laborious thing, built for churning through the millennia. But the blood it pumps—the blood it has pumped for five thousand years, the blood it will pump for the rest of his life—is nearly human blood. It carries with it, through his monster’s veins, the weighty, necessary, terrible stuff of human existence: fear, wonder, hope, wickedness, love. But in the Minotaur’s world it is far easier to kill and devour seven virgins year after year, their rattling bones rising at his feet like a sea of cracked ice, than to accept tenderness and return it.

Seriously. If that doesn’t make you want to give the poor guy a giant hug and a tender pat on the snout -- especially considering that such a revelation comes on the heels of a fleeting but significant physical interaction with the imperfect waitress M is crushing on hard -- then you have neither a soul nor a beating heart to speak of and I cannot, in good conscience, encourage further communication with you because you're probably a zombie. Not if you can read ....and puts her hand on top of his. And puts her hand on top of his. And puts her hand on top of his without the awed reverence of a beast unaccustomed to gentleness absolutely demolishing your stoic reserve and tear ducts. Though you’re probably a lost cause anyway if you made it past page 49’s confession that touch comes so infrequently to the Minotaur that when it happens, sincere or not, it nearly takes his breath away, blinds him momentarily to all rational thought and allegiance without your breath hitching and that little premonition of danger making you fiercely protective of M -- or maybe that’s just me identifying with fictional characters to an unhealthy extent again.

This (debut, nonetheless) novel does so many things well beyond its sympathetic rendering of a mythical abomination. At one point, M’s constitution is described as one of “gritty resignation,” which can also be said about the narration’s tone. M is never pathetic or hopeless, traits one might expect from so tragic and long a fall (fortunately, his Labyrinth days are mostly hazy half-dreams; even M’s primal defenses are blunted by a self-control he’s exerting after eons of learning that both “possessing a capacity for evil unmatched” and “his own potential for tiny rages” can lead to the kind of dire consequences he no longer welcomes). He’s scared and nervous an awful lot, but mostly in regard to the damage he can unintentionally cause other people and the embarrassment he can bring upon himself, and has a downright endearing habit of bovinely poking at the ground with his very human foot when he isn’t sure of what else to do, but he soldiers on with a hard-won, Zen-like “state of indifference, sometimes blessed, sometimes cursed” that is completely expected from someone who has been everywhere once and who has passively watched the ultimately inconsequential rise and fall of countless civilizations.

I feel so strange saying that I loved this book because there were so many moments that killed me with their undercurrents of sadness. For every instance detailing M’s private and painstaking maintenance ritual (being half-bull, after all, creates skin problems and requires frequent horn grooming), it was the self-sufficient singularity of it that got me the most. He reacts to the smallest kindness with a touchingly disproportionate relief and gratitude. His bull’s mouth is not made for human words, so verbal communication is an onerous task: His economy of language and the obvious embarrassment he feels when attempting to speak make his few non-grunted utterances poignant, not piteous (there's an exchange with M and his boss that crescendos with M's submissive, disbelieving "Not fired?" and, I swear, those paired words have never sung with such emotional resonance before). And his heady desire for the mere ability to sing into the warm nights as he drives his lovingly maintained jalopy screams of a being who may be no longer trapped in a Grecian maze against his will but confines himself to his inner world, as rich as any terminal introvert's mental plane, because he knows he never had and never will enjoy a real place in what’s going on around him.

Even M’s bullish half is capable of empathy and despair. He certainly recognizes the cannibalistic nature of becoming his employer’s new beef carver and his emotional reaction to a televised bullfight – one of the few times he deigns to use the contraption, as ancient M “feels hostile toward most things electronic.... There is a threat in the very existence of such minute and exact circuitry that touches something primal in the Minotaur” – is terrible to consider in its personal relevance.

As sympathetically as M is painted within these 300-some pages, it is nearly impossible to suspend one's disbelief to allow the sexual encounters between a woman and a man-bull to be effortlessly romantic. As loudly and over-earnestly as I was rooting for the Minotaur to get some, the novel would have hit a mortally insincere snag had M gotten his rocks off without a hitch (and a few suspicions about his partner's stability). Just like the few unprovoked, unwelcome confrontations and scuffles M finds himself in by virtue of being "a freak," it was absolutely crucial to the integrity of the narrative for M's lone love scene in this book to come with some ugliness.

Because as much as you wanna take M's hand in yours for a little while to assure him that there are more than just a scant few decent people out there, the book straight-up questions what the hell an attractive, mentally sound woman would find arousing in such an unusual partner; also true to the gist of the story, however, there is a well-intentioned and genuine sense of companionship at the heart of a seemingly deviant behavior: What would compel a woman to kiss a man with the head of a bull? Pity? Curiosity? Genuine attraction? Maybe [she] recognizes the freakish parts of her own self and is drawn to the Minotaur through that alliance. Most likely it is a fluctuating merger of all these things that move her.

Quite simply, I love this book and can't wait to read it again. I love what it had to say about people by way of a thoroughly nontraditional (but also undeniably human) protagonist. I loved M himself with such unrestrained empathy that he might be my new favorite fictional character. I loved the casual metaphors, the easy allusions, the subtle themes. I loved its warmth. And I really loved how it was a perfect storm of things that reminded me of how much I love getting lost and immersed in damn fine storytelling propelling a damn fine tale.

Guys, seriously: It is my mission in life to get people to read this book. Do yourself a favor and read this book now.

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