Today’s contributor to our Big Loves column is Laurie Foos. Foos has published five previous novels with Coffee House Press: Before Elvis There Was Nothing, Ex Utero, Portrait of the Walrus by a Young Artist, Twinship, and Bingo Under the Crucifix. In her newest novel, The Blue Girl, mothers in a small lakeside town bake their secrets into moon pies and feed them to a silent blue girl. At turns lyrical, absurd, and heartbreaking, her fabulist novel about this strange blue girl explores the strangeness in all of us. Here, Foos shares her love for Steven Sherrill.
It was the cover that got me: the image of a half-man, half-bull sitting on a milk crate wearing work boots and a white cook’s coat with a red neckerchief, a cigarette between the thick fingers of his right hand, black horned head leaning into his left hand. And then of course there was the title above the image: The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break. I remember thinking, If ever there was a book up my alley, this is it.
Of course it’s a risky premise, and part of the joy of a novel like The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break is watching Steven Sherrill walk that high wire to see how well and how long he can stay up, which, thanks to the verbal calisthenics and often startling beauty of the language, he does for the entirety of the novel. We meet the Minotaur five thousand years post-labyrinth, where he is known only as M.—a Kafkaesque nod if ever there was one—and lives in the deep South in a trailer park. He works as a line cook at a steakhouse, an obvious joke, perhaps, though a writer as smart as Sherrill knows you have to go for the obvious scenario, the one anyone can think of before you can spin it on its head. Poor M., who says little in the novel save for “Unnhs” and “Mmms,” though the other characters in the steakhouse are always asking him to repeat himself—”What’s that, M? You say something?”—is trapped within the physicality of his bull’s head. With “the cavernous expanse of his throat and…thick bovine tongue, his words (coming) out tortured and mutilated, deep, almost whining,” he wants only to say, “I am tired of these horns and all that they mean.” Prone to accidents in the kitchen and in love with a waitress named Kelly, who suffers epileptic fits, M. manages one painfully hilarious articulation early in the novel when he reveals to his fellow employees at the steakhouse, “I am a tit man.”
And there are many hilarious moments, but as the novel progresses, we watch Sherrill delve into the humanity of M who is painfully aware of the “transitional skin” where his human self meets his bull self. Sherrill, also a poet, writes, “On the Minotaur’s back the transition is less decisive…Sometimes this place, this division, throbs, swells, deepens, becomes a chasm, within the Minotaur that he will never span, though he will spend eternity trying…to believe for an isolated moment that he is a singular and whole being.”
We move through the novel with M., who is also quite good with his human hands. He is able to fix most any machine and has a special affinity for cars. As we come to know M. and his life in the trailer park in the South, where he is often besotted both by memories of his thousands of years in the labyrinth as well as a painful awareness of his own alienation, it becomes increasingly clear how well the premise of the novel is so much more than the punch line the title might suggest. After a brief encounter with Kelly, the waitress M. pines for, we get a glimpse into his isolation as Sherrill describes “the architecture of the Minotaur’s heart”: “… 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…the 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…than (it is) to accept tenderness and return it.”
Certainly part of Sherrill’s premise concerns his satirical depiction of the American South and the crappy restaurant job that M. is relegated to, though the novel evolves, as we least expect it, into a kind of love story punctuated as much by Sherrill’s flair for gritty realism as for the absurd. The Minotaur, out of the labyrinth and into a trailer park where he drives a beat-up Vega and smokes menthols, wants only what any of us wants: to figure out how to be human.
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