A novel premise for a book, this one, and delivered with impeccable prose and timing. A mature and very experienced anthropology student, still trying for his degree after several years of procrastination and failure, watches his life pass him by and crumble around him, as he spends more and more time with the street-workers who are the subject of his dissertation. The real star of this book is not so much the story, which is not really its point, but the razor-sharp wit and rallying dialogue; the Melancholy Strumpet Master is rather more humorous literary fiction than anything else. Its action comes not in events, but rather in the form of interaction, banter, wisecracks and witty retorts. Zeb Beck is a fine author with a cracking sense of humor, and the sardonic cynicism of his anti-hero sizzles with every exchange. Gil is one of those people who, despite his gloom and funk, perpetually amuses without intending to.
If you like humor which is intelligent and indeed thought-provoking, this may be for you. For this book actually does have a social question underpinning it, that of the perception of prostitution as a profession, the people who do it, and indeed its validity as a subject of anthropological study. In this respect, it is something of a timely moral dilemma, in these days of ostrich sociology and tribal ideology over principle. The book is not so much about the working girls as the judgment, trial and social execution of Gil, a man who even dares to attempt objective debate and sincere, hands-on study into a behavior which, frankly, is as old as humanity itself – yet, like gang culture or the children in state care, it isn’t just the elephant in the room, but rather the elephant who has been thrown out of the room, kicked out of the house and sent to the local swimming pool for a few hours, just so the grown-ups don’t have to ignore it any more. That may seem like hyperbole, but it is the fundamental premise underpinning Zeb’s book, and it is tremendously clever at that.
I wasn’t keen on the title, I won’t lie. I get the comedic touch, but I felt it was a little too high-brow for the book, which isn’t and doesn’t need to be; it is funny and clever, and I feel that is more than enough. I would definitely recommend this book for those who like the north-eastern States type of humor (I know the book is set in California and the border, but the wit is sharp and sophisticated in a way you would rather likely find in the modern American take on literary fiction, synonymous with New York or Jersey).
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