Picador, 2000, 313 pages
Five thousand years out of the Labyrinth, the Minotaur finds himself in the American South, living in a trailer park and working as a line cook at a steakhouse. No longer a devourer of human flesh, the Minotaur is a socially inept, lonely creature with very human needs. But over a two-week period, as his life dissolves into chaos, this broken and alienated immortal awakens to the possibility for happiness and to the capacity for love.
The Minotaur — not just a minotaur, but the Minotaur — has survived five thousand years, wandering the world with only a few earthly possessions, and has now settled, temporarily, in a trailer park in North Carolina where he works as a line cook in a steakhouse (the irony is not lost) and fixes engines in his spare time.
This book is hard to describe — maybe you'd call it "Southern-fried magical realism." It's very slow-moving and literary in its examination of the inhuman Minotaur's loneliness. Although people notice the Minotaur's bestial appearance, nobody seems to find it remarkable enough to ask about his origins, or wonder at the fact that a bull-headed man is actually cooking prime rib at Grub's Steakhouse. This is only tenuously a fantasy novel — blink and you'll miss a few cameos by other mythological beings, but don't expect Theseus to show up for a climactic battle. The climax is entirely mundane; little that happens to the Minotaur could not happen to any other trailer park resident working as a line cook.
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.
Mostly this is a story about the human heart (even if that heart is half bull's) and alienation. The yearning for human contact. The way small moments can register large for the poor and working class who have little in the way of luxury, recreational time, wide circles of associates, and opportunities to go on fun-filled vacations. They live in trailer parks, they work paycheck to paycheck, they make bad choices in life and love, often because their menu of choices is pretty damn limited, and so a little thing like a hand placed over a Minotaur's can take on Homeric significance.
This literary work of Southern magical realism will make you root for the poor, earnest Minotaur who just really needs a hug. Also (irony not lost) the descriptions of food will really make you want a thick, juicy steak.
Verdict: Very literary, and not even as strange as it sounds, once you get past the premise. The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break is well-written, with deeply human characters (even/especially the monster), but a rather plodding plot if you're hoping for more in the way of story. 8/10.
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