The Omnivorous Reader
Legend of the Working Class
When M, a cross-species monster, moves from N.C. to Pennsylvania, the plot thickens
By D.G. Martin
In his insightful review of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis in this magazine last month, Stephen Smith questioned whether that book explains the unexpected success of Donald Trump’s campaign for president.
Meanwhile, I have been thinking that another new book might give us insight into the white male blue-collar world where Trump’s appeal rang loud and clear. North Carolina native Steven Sherrill’s The Minotaur Takes His Own Sweet Time tells how a fictional and Greek legendary half-bull, half-man called the Minotaur adapts to life in a modern white working-class community.
In case you do not remember the Minotaur, he was the offspring of a queen of Crete, who, subject to a curse from a vengeful god, fell madly in love with her husband’s prize bull. The resulting offspring grew up to be a feared monster that devoured children. In the Greek legend the Minotaur was killed to end his evil ways.
But, in Sherrill’s story, the Minotaur has survived and lived for thousands of years, roaming from place to place. He is immortal and destined to struggle forever to live as an outsider alongside fully human colleagues.
Back in 2000, in his novel, The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break, Sherrill brought the fictional Minotaur to our state as a line cook in a seedy restaurant called Grub’s Rib just off the interstate near Charlotte. The Minotaur lived in a mobile home in a rundown trailer park. His co-workers called him M and got used to his bullhorns, funny-looking face, and tortured way of speaking. They had their own set of challenges, not unlike those described in Hillbilly Elegy.
Just as his co-workers adapted to M and accepted him as a fellow-worker, readers set aside disbelief, identify with the creature, and observe the world of a struggling working class through his eyes. Still, M is destined always to be something of an outsider, a condition that painfully troubles and enriches his story and his relationships with the blue-collar characters that surround him.
This September, 16 years after The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break, its sequel, The Minotaur Takes His Own Sweet Time, hit bookstore shelves. Sherrill, who now lives in Pennsylvania, teaches at Penn State-Altoona. M has moved up there, too. He is now a professional Civil War re-enactor in a tourist-centered “historic village.” Every day M puts on his Confederate uniform and goes out on the field to do his job. He dies. Over and over again.
In the rustbelt around the village and battlefield near Altoona in central Pennsylvania, M observes and interacts with the struggles of the working and out-of-work people he encounters. Almost all are at the edge. One broken car away from a financial crisis. One lost job away from disaster.
M’s struggles are special. Only half-human, he still has fully human desires and aspirations. He is lonely and longs for companionship. He is helpful and considerate. He adapts to disappointment. But, as Sherrill leads us to understand in this, his second Minotaur masterpiece, M is always going to be “other.” Always an outsider.
M lives at the Judy-Lou Motor Lodge, a shabby motel just off a busy highway and within walking distance of the historic village and battlefield. The motel owner, Rambabu Gupta, gives M a place to stay in return for M’s handyman repair work. M can fix almost anything, including automobiles.
When a dirty, filthy, broken down Honda Odyssey van careens into a parking lot near the motel, an attractive redheaded woman and her wild, brain-damaged brother get out, and a weird love story begins. M sets about to fix the car. He wanders through his favorite places, auto junkyards, to find the right parts. As he fixes her car, the appreciative redhead and M begin to develop feelings for each other.
Could a cross-species friendship work into something more? Sherrill uses his great storyteller gifts to make his readers wonder, and maybe hope. But the poignant climax is dark and sad.
Back to the recent election, M seems to have no interest in politics, but his desperate, disillusioned, and angry co-workers and neighbors in Pennsylvania’s rustbelt could understandably have found hope in Donald Trump’s message. If they had made it to the polls on November 8, their votes would almost certainly have helped Trump steal Pennsylvania from the Democrats and Hillary Clinton. OH
D.G. Martin hosts North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.