The premise of Zeb Beck’s The Melancholy Strumpet Master is intriguing: By day, Gilmore Crowell works at a school for juvenile delinquents in California, but nights and weekends, he crosses the border to Tijuana where he’s trying to finish his doctoral thesis on street walkers.
After eight years of trying to finish his anthropology doctorate by interviewing prostitutes (and yes, he does sleep with a couple) and paying for their time, yet making little inroads into the community, Gil comes up with the idea of setting up a website for the women, as it is 2002, and the Internet is pretty new. Gil figures this would not only help them, it might earn their trust so he could finish his thesis, which he desperately needs to do or be forced out of the school.
In Gil’s own words: “It was not uncommon to fall short of the doctorate. A good many had. Armed with their master’s in archaeology or linguistics, they set off into the wilderness never to be heard from again…”
Beck is an adept storyteller with a droll sense of humor. Gil’s observations are entertaining and witty. For example, he describes his substitute teaching at the school this way: “As the school day wore on, he discovered that any moderately cunning imposter could pull off teaching high school English, especially to a room full of hooligans. It was not at all like economics or auto mechanics, in which the fraud would be readily exposed.”
Besides his humorous descriptions of the mundane and absurd things in Gil’s life, Beck is also skilled with dialogue. At one point, he tells Ava, a prostitute he’s developing feelings for: “Another problem,” he said. “Everything I’ve learned can be summed up in three pages. I need another two hundred.”
Readers who enjoy dark humor and unusual slice-of-life stories will enjoy Gil’s journey to finish his dissertation and discover that maybe there’s more to life than academia.