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The Melancholy Strumpet Master
Zeb Beck, author
Gilmore Crowell’s anthropological study of Tijuana sex workers had his dissertation advisor cheering him on. But that was years ago, before his best sources in the streetwalker community up and vanished. Now he’s living in a downtown Los Angeles boarding house for seniors and listlessly trying to jumpstart his research anew. The faculty elders have grown impatient, he’s too broke to pay his parking tickets, and his girlfriend recently dumped him. To stay afloat, Gil takes a job teaching in a juvenile detention center, using his salary to pay the sex workers to speak with him. In a madcap act of self-sabotage, he begins sleeping with them, as well.
This witty satiric portrait of a PhD student “snagged in the weeds of the thesis” centers on Gilmore Crowell, a once-promising anthropology student whose research—a study of the microculture of Tijuana sex workers—has failed. Now it’s not just his dissertation that’s going nowhere: Beck, in his debut, opens with the tragicomic vision of Gil, in 2002, taking a hacksaw to the wheel brace that the authorities have clapped to his 1984 Isuzu Gemini hatchback. Gil can’t afford to drive from Los Angeles to Tijuana to meet with sex workers who don’t want to talk to him anyway, and as he takes on new employment as a substitute teacher at a Los Angeles Correctional Academy, he finds himself ready to cross “the Rubicon separating academic integrity from disgrace”: paying the sex workers to talk to him.

Unsurprisingly, that soon leads to his paying for their more conventional services, too. Despite the cutesy title, the lives of sex workers here are examined with empathy and a lack of sensation or condescension. Some tell Gil lies; some challenge his assumptions; some reveal heartbreaking lives. Elsewhere, Beck pens sharp comic scenes of floundering grad students, a shady dentist who purports to offer psychological evaluations, and Gil’s conflicts with an ex and the authorities at his job. Dialogue is sharp and slicing throughout, the students’ chatter as preening as the sex workers’ is reluctant.

Eventually Gil endeavors to enlist his subjects in a big-idea (but somewhat vague) scheme—getting them to approve his posting of their photos and contact info on a newfangled “website” that he conceives of as vital to completing his research while also helping them drum up business.Gil’s website plan is, like all of Gil’s plans, half-baked. Since the protagonist is forever uncertain, the novel, despite polished prose and strong scenecraft, often lacks narrative momentum, with scant rising or falling action. Gil calls himself a “slug” early on, and he mostly stays just that as his life lurches toward minor, inevitable comic scandal.

Takeaway: Humane academic satire finds an anthropology student investigating sex work.

Comparable Titles: Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members, John Williams’s Stoner.

Production grades
Cover: B+
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A-
Marketing copy: A-