How to Sell

Novelist Richard Powers has called the forces of commerce that shape our culture the “rhinoceros at the table.” It’s a rhinoceros steadfastly ignored by the majority of American novelists working today, many of whom have been in the comfortable embrace of the academy for most of their adult lives. Clancy Martin’s How to Sell, a novel that gets its hands dirty with deal making and dollar signs, is an up-yours to the financially fastidious crowd. Beginning in the late 1980s and drawing from the seven years Martin spent in the jewelry business before earning his Ph.D. in philosophy, it’s the tale of two Canadian brothers who move to Texas to stake their claim to the American Dream in diamonds and gold. Their lifestyle of drugs and matter-of-course sex may put some in mind of Jay McInerney’s 1984 tale of youthful debauchery set in New York, Bright Lights, Big City. But while the arcs of the stories bear some striking resemblances, How to Sell makes that earlier cocaine-laced tale read as innocently as Good Night, Moon.

The story is narrated by Bobby Clark, who is 16 years old when the book begins. Bobby is no innocent, Martin is at pains to show: On the first page he steals his mother’s wedding ring to buy his way back into the affections of a girlfriend. Expelled from his high school, Bobby goes to live with his older, married brother, Jim, who works at the Fort Worth Deluxe Diamond Exchange. Jim picks Bobby up at the airport in a rented limo and offers him cocaine, and Jim’s girlfriend, a beautiful jewelry saleswoman named Lisa, runs her fingers flirtatiously through Bobby’s hair. They drive directly to the store, stopping only to buy Bobby clothes suitable for the sales floor.

Bobby receives a swift initiation into the high-rolling world of luxury peddling, which, as Lisa observes much later, is “like Miracle-Gro on your failings.” Many of Bobby’s lessons are relayed in dialogue so satisfying it calls up the linguistic gunfire in David Mamet’s Glenglarry Glen Ross?. The process of Bobby’s business education is by far the most enjoyable part of this book, which threads colorful scenes of conscienceless wheeling and dealing with opaque human storylines. Bobby begins by setting all the Swiss watches at ten minutes to two, the position that shows them to best advantage in the display case. He soon demonstrates the same gift for salesmanship that distinguishes his older brother in the eyes of the calculating store owner, Mr. Popper, and finds himself selling Rolexes and appraising diamonds — if he can manage to function after another night of alcohol, drugs, and sex with Lisa, with whom he quickly begins an affair.

In the commercial world Martin describes, value is a pact between buyer and seller, who choose to see the gem before them in the same way long enough to settle on a price. The business is based on deception. Yet the coin of the realm is trust. Describing his earnest sales pitch to the first customer to whom he sells a Rolex, Bobby remarks, “You spend the rest of your career trying to recapture that innocence. Sinlessness and candor like that is a fierce advantage.” The tricks of the trade — relabeling white gold as platinum, filling in flawed diamonds so they look unblemished to the casual eye, giving a customer’s watch brought in for a cleaning to another client who needs a little something to sweeten the pot on a big sale — are enough to make you think twice about darkening the doorstep of a jewelry store.

As the Clark boys scramble to make the next big deal and put in the punishing hours that will keep them in good with the boss or, later, keep their own business afloat, they’re like lampreys dependent on the truly wealthy — occasionally living like the rich but not, in the end, like them at all. And part of the reason they’re not rich, Martin suggests, is that there’s something woefully impractical about a salesman. Late in the book, a jeweler tells Bobby, “A salesman is the opposite of a businessman, Bobby. A businessman cares about the practical details of life. A salesman is an artist. He can’t tie his own shoelaces. He lives on tomorrow. He’s a cloud-and-sky guy, a rainbow man. He can’t hold money. He can’t make a goddamn dollar out of four quarters and a can of glue, if you want to hear the truth of it.”

Bobby’s obsession with Lisa, his complicated love for a brother whom he can’t bring himself to trust, and the two men’s relationship with their increasingly demented father are the human elements that should anchor this tale. But the ins and outs of the business are what keep us reading, and, in the end, they offer what little insight we get into the humans behind the deals. The deaths that come at the end of the book — one the result of a needlessly graphic act of violence — arrive with a dull thud rather than the resonance we would feel if we were permitted any kind of real access to their emotional lives.

We don’t have to like Bobby Clark to want to invest in him, but we do have to feel that we come to understand him. Martin has a gift for decrypting immediate human agendas — the fraught conversation among the store’s management after an inside-job theft should be taught in writing classes. But the characters’ deeper motives and fidelities are impossible to know — Bobby’s perhaps most of all. He idolizes Jim but sleeps with his girlfriend. He loves Lisa, but the basis of that love appears to be coke and meth, a lot of sex, and a couple of beautiful smiles. He doggedly pursues the woman who eventually becomes his wife but holds himself aloof from her.

Martin, currently a philosophy professor at the University of Missouri, is fascinated by deception — he has written or edited several philosophical books on the subject. Periodically, Bobby’s character mentions that he is reading Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, Spinoza, and Schopenhauer. But this world of moral concerns — and the impulse that would propel Bobby toward it — is bafflingly absent from what he reveals of his inner life. He’s withholding quite a lot — which may work to sell a diamond, but not a story. In the end, Bobby can’t quite close the deal.