The Minotaur and today’s politics

Published 10:50 am Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Do you think that the Greek legendary half-bull, half-man called the Minotaur could help us understand what is going on in American politics this year?

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 who devoured small children.

More about the Minotaur in a minute.

Meanwhile, others are trying to help us understand the Trump phenomenon and explain its success in securing so much support from different groups of Americans.

One such helpful book is “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.” It describes a struggling lower-class, white family in Middletown, Ohio, with Kentucky and Appalachian roots. The author, J. D. Vance, grew up surrounded by unsuccessful people angry with everybody, especially the federal government. Vance describes his family’s positive virtues such as patriotism and loyalty. He contrasts those with their negatives such as tendencies towards violence, instability, and addiction.

Although “Hillbilly Elegy” does not purport to deal with Trump, it provides an inside look at how and why Vance’s family’s struggles make them receptive to the appeal Donald Trump provides.

According to The New York Times reviewer Jennifer Senior, the book provides “a compassionate, discerning sociological analysis of the white underclass that has helped drive the politics of rebellion, particularly the ascent of Donald J. Trump.”

Now back to the Minotaur.

Back in 2000, in his novel, “The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break,” North Carolina author Steven 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 bull horns, funny looking face, and tortured way of speaking. They had their own set of challenges, not unlike those in “Hillbilly Elegy.”

Just as his co-workers adapted to M and accepted him as a fellow-worker, readers set aside disbelief, identified with the creature, and observed the world of a struggling working class through his eyes. Still, M was always going to be an outsider, a condition that enriched his story and his views of the “hillbilly” culture of the other characters. Like J. D. Vance in “Hillbilly Elegy,” M reported on a culture in which Trump’s message may thrive.

Early next month, sixteen years after “The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break,” its sequel, The Minotaur Takes His Own Sweet Time,” hits the bookstore shelves. Sherrill now lives in Pennsylvania, teaching at Penn State-Altoona. M has moved, 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.

Although M seems to have no interest in politics, if his desperate, disillusioned, and angry co-workers and neighbors in Pennsylvania’s rustbelt find hope in Donald Trump’s message, Hillary Clinton may have more of a battle there than today’s polls indicate.


D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. This Thursday’s (Aug. 25) guest is John Rosenthal, author of “After: The Silence of the Lower 9th Ward.”.