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The Minotaur Takes A Cigarette Break by Steven Sherrill

Unngh...
It might be twelve years since I first read this novel, drawn to it as I was at the time by the obvious and, I thought before reading it, gimcrack gimmick of having a mythical beast as the protagonist in a story about love, loss, rage, impotence, hope in the dust-bowl of Raymond Carver’s middle America. I picked it up again recently because of the confluence of two events – one, I found my first naive review of it in a stack of old clippings from a newspaper for which I wrote nearly ten years ago, and two, because of the unexpected loss of my friend’s brother, a man who despite his own issues, once pushed me to explore new horizons (both personal and chemical) and whose favourite novel, he told me in 2007, paraphrasing the microcosmic line “Maybe he sleeps, maybe he doesn’t”, was this very book.

It feels a very American novel, if I can put it thus and betray my own prejudices, given it borrows from European myth (M is not alone – there’s a nymph working in a truck stop, playing Ms Pacman; Pan chases pigs around a junkyard, and Medusa works in a freak show, scaring carnies into nearly decapitating themselves) and even everyday life feels post-apocalyptic, with peeling walls, stench and decay all-pervasive; cars are never new, work is impermanent, connections temporary and self-serving. M, submitting to the attrition of passing centuries, endures as best he can, watching rather than acting a part, finding scant comfort in the immutability of menial tasks like sewing, food prep and car maintenance. And yet, despite his advanced years, his itinerant life (he’s lived everywhere at least once in his long existence), the horrors of his past, he just wants to fit in. To be appreciated. To be accepted. Leaving his windows open so that the sounds of life at the trailer park wash over him as he fails to sleep; practising saying sorry to the new waitress, epileptic Kelly, in whom he sees the vaguest of vague hopes of a shared isolation, a folk community of two. And it’s hope that categorises this novel. Watching the atrocious Red Dwarf VIII earlier this week Kristine Kochanski said, ponderously, that even the word hopeless has hope in it, and M is not quite ready to give up on life, even if he has an unorthodox approach to communicating his desires.

Evocative, accessible, and gently melancholic, written sparely but poetically (or perhaps poetic because written sparely), Sherrill’s novel captured my imagination back then and re-reading it has meant discovering a new layer of enjoyment, as a more practised reader and a more mature* mind. I found out recently that it pre-dates America Gods by a few months, but it shares a landscape with my favourite Gaiman novel, and might now be inexorably linked. I think I will need to go find a new copy of that too…

*check that – less juvenile


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