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Review: Sex and the single Minotaur

By Adam Dunn
Special to CNN

"The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break"
By Steven Sherrill
Picador (paperback)
320 pages

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(CNN) -- If you were an immortal, accursed creation of the misguided passions of gods and men, where would you be today?

Working the FryDaddy at Grub's Rib, and living in the Lucky-U Mobile Estates somewhere in the Southeast, about half a day's drive from the Florida border -- or so Steven Sherrill would have you imagine.

Sherrill breaks new ground (and old myths) with "The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break," a deliciously entertaining first novel. It's an uproarious look at the drawbacks of eternal life, and mankind's need for mythic monsters to divert his attention from his own shortcomings.

Most will recall the Minotaur as an archetypal embodiment of fear, a maddened half-bull and half-human banished to a labyrinth and fed a steady diet of virgins until Theseus came by. According to legend, keeping the Minotaur at bay required the skills of Daedalus, who constructed a labyrinth where the Minotaur could be shut in, while outside, the Minotaur's father, King Minos, resorted to imperialism, subduing rival kingdoms to keep his warped offspring fed on virgin flesh.

The Minotaur's story is a sad and ironic one, his insatiable existence the product of the entwined passions of lust and jealousy. This was obviously not lost on Sherrill, whose imagination led the monster out of one maze and into a larger one: the modern world, with its trailer parks and fast-food dives, evanescent friendships, and those seeking refuge from the unknown inside a numbing pool of banality.

Immortality ain't all it's cracked up to be

"No doubt the Minotaur has been reduced over the years," Sherrill tactfully claims. The beast is no longer so terrifying; he's now a line cook driving a '75 Vega, a taciturn nomad who's learned to sew in order to modify men's clothes to his no-longer fearsome shape.

Having bought off Theseus back in the day, the Minotaur has outlived the gods which inspired him, the legends that gave him a bad rep, and lingers on in the age of men, heavy-hearted in the face of immortality: "It is as if the Minotaur is looking into the past and the future simultaneously, and both are visions of desolation, of endless and murky emptiness."

Being immortal gives the 5,000-year-old Minotaur perspective on humanity and therefore prevents him from being too judgmental, but also erodes his memory. However, amongst the ordinary mortals -- a bent trailer park manager, an hermaphroditic phone sex solicitor on late-night TV -- the Minotaur's kin pop up to jog his brain. Pan makes a (possible) cameo, as well as the nymph Laurel, and even Medusa gets a nod (with a smart updating of her traditional powers). But they're stragglers, too.

Fixing things and having sex

To help cope with the horror of an endless landscape of days, the Minotaur (now known as "M") takes solace in tinkering. He fixes cars, clocks, meals. He takes great care in his daily grooming of his "transitional skin" where he goes from bull to man. He can no longer muster the energy for confrontation, although he does offer sympathy when the mood is upon him. In private, he sings.

And some of the book's funniest moments occur with the occasional stirring of his largely dormant libido: "Understand this: in his lifetime the Minotaur has had lovers, and they have run the gamut in species, gender and degree of consent and reciprocity. He has known both eager maenads and resistant victims. And the very nature of his existence, the facts and rumors surrounding his progenitors, render him nothing if not open-minded in the area of sexuality." Readers are forewarned not to even try to foresee the results.

If all this sounds gloomy, it's not. It's actually very funny. Laden with themes of loneliness, ostracism, and melancholy, Sherrill artfully uses the Minotaur as mirror for the absurdities of modern life. No longer an icon of terror, the Minotaur can only shake his horns in wonder at the waiter who sucks the nitrous oxide out of all the whipped-cream canisters, or the porn theater with an external audio feed overlooking the Putt-Putt miniature golf course.

Society's myth has become real, while the society has devolved into a strip-mall nightmare. Perhaps we should keep our monsters about us, lest we become them ourselves.

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