There are few living writers whose opinions I respect as much as I do those of Neil Gaiman. When he says that a book is worth taking a look at, I check it out. When he started his own recording label in a partnership with Audible, Neil Gaiman Presents, I made sure to save one of my credits.
The concept is a simple one. Gaiman put together a list of books that he loved and thought that more people should be familiar with. He then worked with the authors to find the perfect narrator for the story. As I found out when I listened to Steven Sherrill’s 2002 novel The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break, his tastes are a bit more eclectic than I would have expected. Gaiman knows that not every book that made his list will appeal to every reader, as he recently explained to Laura Miller:
The plus side of Neil Gaiman Presents is that it’s all stuff I like. The downside of Neil Gaiman Presents is that you do not have to like it too. I can’t imagine that anybody completely shares my tastes in anything. I’d love it if people tried new things.
And so it was with an open mind that I pressed play.
I must admit, before I go too far, that I haven’t yet read Gaiman’s novel American Gods. Knowing what I do about the book, though, it makes sense that he would have been drawn to The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break. Both novels deal with mythological figures who find themselves living life in modern day America.
After escaping the maze and changing his habits, the Minotaur wanders the earth, never staying in one place for very long. When the novel opens, he is living in a trailer in North Carolina, working as a line cook in a steakhouse. Over the many (many) years, he has picked up a number of useful skills. In addition to the cooking, he is also handy with a needle and has a way with cars. These are all things that can be done alone, and the Minotaur does not have many friends. In fact, despite his somewhat intimidating appearance, he is often bullied by his coworkers. And, normally, he just takes it. He is not the menacing creature that he used to be.
The narrative is very straight-forward. It describes the Minotaur’s day-to-day existence, including all of his insecurities and the confusion he feels about life in the modern world. Other than his physical appearance, there is not a lot about the Minotaur that is all that different from anyone else. While some, including his co-workers Shane and Mike, treat him more like an animal than a man, most of the people in his life have come to realize that fact. By the end of the novel, the Minotaur realizes that he is not as alone in the world as he once thought that he was.
All of the things I have described thus far are the very things that almost made me stop listening. I was bored – or, rather, I thought I would be bored by a whole novel full of descriptions of the goings on at the restaurant or the frustration that the Minotaur feels at not being able to speak clearly because of his thick bovine tongue. Instead, I was charmed by the simplicity and by Sherrill’s ability to make the mundane significant.
I do not think that I would have found the book quite so charming in print. I think I would have ended up skimming some of the more significant sections. The narrator, Holter Graham, really gave real life to the story. Even the Minotaur’s grunt had a certain appeal to it. Based on what I heard here, Neil Gaiman Presents shows a lot of promise, especially for the reader who wants to step off the beaten path.
Has anyone read Pavane by Keith Roberts? That is the next NGP title that I am thinking of trying. I’d love to know what you thought.