Humanity out of the Labyrinth

When I hear “cigarette break,” my Pavlovian response is to think of dropping your concerns and stepping outside to claim eight minutes of time for your own. When the lead character of The Minotaur Take a Cigarette Break, by Steven Sherrill, takes a cigarette break, it is not a relaxing time. There are no relaxing times. When you stalk the 21st century with massive horns sprouting from your forehead and no ability to look straight ahead of you, you get a lot of strange looks. When you have to concentate deeply to enunciate even one- and two-word sentences, empathy can be in short supply. You are the subject of a poetic and lonely story about being different.

At first, I expected the “minotaur” to be a metaphor. When it turned out that instead, it was a seven-foot, half-man half-bull creature with enormous horns sprouting from his head, I expected the story to involve a silly gimmick. My expectation of the metaphor turned out to be much closer to the mark. Once, this minotaur was a fearsome, violent beast. He only dimly remembers those days, though. He is a shadow of what he once was, exhausted and unsure. He still inspires a little fear and a lot of curiosity, but even more charity and pity. He is kind and conscientious and empathetic, qualities that vaguely reflected by some of the humans scurrying around him but rejected by most.

There aren’t any sweeping political or religious truths in this story (at least none that I gleaned), but neither is it simply an entertaining plot. Instead, it is a modern story about a decent being out of place among others. Although the Minotaur is labeled a monster, he shows through pursuit of a few simple truths that he has greater humanity than most around him. When the possibility of love shines into the story, you find yourself hoping desperately that love is something available to anyone … or everything. I felt like the story did leave a loose end or two and incorporated plot points that did not necessarily advance the theme, but almost everything that happens is an effective tool that portrays the weariness and confusion of a being thousands of years old. It’s a terrific counterpoint to the vampires that have taken over popular “monster” culture, with their affected exhaustion and cynicism. I think it will gain a lot in the re-reading one of these days, as well.

Even for me, this was a fast read; over my shoulder at the pool, Alison exclaimed, “There are only five words on each page!” And there aren’t a lot of pages. The brevity lends weight to the vignette-y feeling of it, though, and Sherrill is good at resisting the urge to dress up his basic story with too much baroque language or extranneous plot frills. The Minotaur is a simple beast, struggling to get along. The story, in expressing that struggle, does anything but struggle itself. For a quick and wonderful story of a real creature in a mythical modern world, I’d recommend that anyone who loves interesting literature take a smoke break themselves.

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