The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break by Steven Sherrill

'Sorry sir, it's the house rules: no Minotaurs'
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The Independent Culture

A cartoon in a recent New Statesman, showing a smart but puzzled, bull-headed bloke being debarred from a posh restaurant, is captioned: "Sorry, sir, it's the house rule: no Minotaurs, not even in sports jackets." This neat absurdity reminded me of the era of pernicious boarding-house notices stipulating no blacks, no Irish, no dogs; none who is not one of us. The Minotaur in Steven Sherrill's novel works as a line chef in Grub's Rib, but his existence is circumscribed by anticipation of similarly hostile reactions from mere mortals: terror, confusion, disgust, anger.

The Minotaur, known as M, is greatly diminished from his glorious past. He recognises Christ as "a recent phenomenon" but has learned to curb his flesh-ripping, virgin-devouring antics in favour of a quiet suburban life.

Timid, almost cowed by his bare adequacy with language, M shuns conversation. His thick, raspy tongue is firmly tied in the presence of pretty women. He has had lovers, has "run the gamut in species, gender and degree of consent", but can not remember the last time he was touched by a hand motivated by desire. His scratchy skin needs cream to prevent from cracking, and his horns need regular lacquering.

In swift succession, M drains boiling oil on to his foot, gores his fellow-chef Hernando, witnesses the demise of his trailer-park landlord's beloved dog, endures a dinner at Grub's house assuming he is to be fired (but is instead promoted to the front-of-house beef cart), accidentally tunes in to the end of a bullfight, and stumbles into a date with Kelly, one of Grub's amiable waitresses. These events unsettle M's equilibrium, stirring him to act on his inchoate feelings. His ambiguous best intentions, wildly misconstrued, lead to Sherrill's admirably open conclusion, at once ugly, tender and hopeful.

As the title might suggest, The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break allows pause for thought. I enjoyed Sherrill's laconic style, with its slow-paced introduction of M's limitations and habits. In a way that resonates with Kafka's Metamorphosis, the central interest becomes the individuals' response to the otherness of a mythic beast living in their midst. Sherrill handles this cautiously. M is taunted and used as an obliging acquaintance, but he is also supported by most of Grub's staff and his neighbours.

M is excluded from "the allegiances of men", which he finds pathetic, terrifying, seductive and unattainable. His trammelled potency provides a challenging metaphor for a kind of social disability; a life involuntarily lived beyond the warmth of the common herd. Sherrill's Minotaur allows for allusive readings but remains rootedly among us: "the hardest part of functioning in society is going to a new place, encountering new people and situations, and the Minotaur suspects that this would be true even if he didn't have the head of a bull."