Thursday, November 22, 2012

A Tale of Two Minotaurs

Many of you reading this article are probably aware that I’ve recently released a new book, Minotaur Revisited. It’s a story which follows the Minotaur of Greek mythology through thousands of years of human history and lands him squarely in the middle of our modern world. What most of you probably don’t realize is that a novel with the same theme was released in 2000, The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break by Steven Sherril (Picador 2000). In this very different, but,  in many ways, similar novel the Minotaur is alive and living in a trailer park in the South, working as a cook and spends much of his free time fixing old cars, while trying to cope with a modern world that barely tolerates an immortal half man half bull “monster.”
I stumbled across this book while reading the Wall Street Journal one Saturday. There was an article about an author’s favorite books about non-humans and the book by Mr. Sherril was listed first. I thought it an incredible coincidence that two very different authors could conceive of the same idea.  Mr. Sherril is a poet, a true man of letters. I’m just a dumb surgeon with an overactive imagination.
I truly had never heard of The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break when I started writing my Minotaur story. I began by imagining what would have happened if the events of the Minotaur myth never occurred as reported. Rather, like so many things today, the truth was distorted by the protagonists for personal or political gain (Sorry about my cynicism, I get it from my mother). I made Theseus a scoundrel and allowed the “fierce” Minotaur to escape, and, what was supposed to be a short story, blossomed into a novel.
So, we have two Minotaurs, M. of The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break and Quint of Minotaur Revisited, each living for thousands of years, confounded by a world in which they don’t quite fit, yet, in the end being given the single thing that brings true happiness. The contrast is striking and the presentation is almost opposite, revealing much about the authors of each story.
M. speaks in short syllables, each word a struggle to form. His past is filled with rage and anger as he lived the mythical life of solitude in the Labyrinth; he truly was the monster of mythology. But, he is beaten down by years of living with humanity which doesn’t understand and barely accepts a beast that is so different from the norm. He lives in the midst of people who are everything from kind hearted to cruel, all the time doing his best to fit in, control the rage that is buried inside, yet desperate for love and true happiness. The story provides brief glimpses into his past, thousands of years, during which M. went from a feared monster, capable of devouring young maids and youths, to an anachronism, a curiosity left over from ancient times.  He lives in a trailer park, works at Grub’s restaurant, pines for Kelly, and pays special attention to his unique grooming needs. His life is filled with fixing  cars, carving prime rib, sewing his own clothes and trying to get by, knowing that his present mundane life will eventually end and he will be forced to start over. It’s the pattern he’s lived for five thousand years; centuries are like hours to him. All the while, however, he yearns for more. He has a deep longing for true love. And, while he waits, he suffers. Suffers the indignity of his monstrous body, the ridicule and derision of narrow minded humanity, while being grateful for those moments of kindness which fall his way.
Then there is Quint, who is first encountered as he addresses an overflowing auditorium at an unnamed university. He is well dressed, eloquent and sophisticated. His story is not about his present day struggles. Rather, he recounts his escape from the Labyrinth and the highlights of thousands of years spent wandering among some of the best and worst of humanity. He, too, was a feared monster, but only in name. He is truly a peace loving, gentle intellectual soul, one who is always on the lookout for the best of mankind, but finds himself repeatedly disappointed by those he encounters. Who does he meet? Pharaoh, Moses, Martin Luther, Picasso and many more cross his path and he leaves his mark upon all of them. But, he never seems to completely fit in and over his long life splits his time between humans, cows, and solitude, repeatedly returning to the Labyrinth, be it physical or psychological. Often his solitude is self imposed as he battles depression throughout his long life.
Finally, after his greatest period of suffering, he finds true love with the “wolf girl” whom he meets in a circus side show. Their time together is magical, but far too short. In the end, he tries to end the misery of immortality only to find, at last, acceptance by society. He is poised to take his place in this modern world. But, modern, mainstream society is not ready for him and the story ends on a note that can either be considered sad or hopeful, depending on the reader’s point of view.
What is the statement these two similar, yet very different stories make? Is the here and now of M. all that matters, or is the journey through life most important. M. faces our troubled world with an existential shrug of his massive shoulders, while Quint goes from complete solitude to total engagement with those that surround him and back to solitude. M. finds happiness after thousands of years of misery. Quint leads what should be a full and satisfying life, but only finds happiness during those moments when love fills his world and such moments are far too brief.
I would recommend that anyone interested read both stories and decide which is best. Or, are they really the same story told from two different perspectives?