The Bush administration sold us a war based on phony intelligence; Bernie Madoff sold investors invisible stocks. The art of peddling snake oil may be age-old, but something about the deceit of recent years makes Clancy Martin’s debut novel, How to Sell, feel very timely. Set amid the Fort Worth jewelry trade, this drug-fueled coming-of-age tale knowingly explores our culture of greed and excess.
The narrator, Bobby Clark, is a troubled Canadian teen who gets booted from high school for stealing a case of class rings. “This place is for good people,” the principal says. “You are not a good person. You are a thief, a liar, and a coward.” What’s more, Bobby’s girlfriend is cheating on him with a grocery-store produce clerk. When his older brother, Jim, suggests that Bobby join him at the Fort Worth Deluxe Diamond Exchange, Bobby boards a plane for Texas. He soon enters a fast-paced world of drugs, diamonds, and sex. “You smoke now?” Jim asks when they meet at the airport. “You might want to take it up. For the productivity. It’s been proven. You want to stay on your toes. Competition. They have the free market down here.”
Part 1 follows Bobby’s apprenticeship in the crooked art of selling: forging certificates, running phone scams, and slapping new tags on refurbished Rolexes. His mentors are Jim and Jim’s meth-addicted mistress, Lisa, whom Bobby finds irresistible. The story picks up steam in part 2, which opens a year later when the Clark brothers are operating their own jewelry shop. Somewhere between cavorting with prostitutes and snorting cocaine, Bobby finds himself with a wife and child, yet he seems to regard his new family as little more than the perfect gold watch—a necessary accessory in his confused version of the American dream. Deception—toward customers, family and, above all, oneself—is still the rule. “That was an advantage I had over them,” Bobby tells himself. “Each understood what would count as a betrayal of me differently.” But when Lisa returns, selling her body instead of gems, these lies merge into tragedy.
How to Sell borrows liberally from Martin’s own past in the jewelry business. He has said that the industry will likely be unhappy with his Jungle-like exposure of its dirty tricks. While he no longer sells overpriced diamonds, Martin is still a salesman in his prose, sidling up to his readers with a syrupy voice before blindsiding them with a violent metaphor or an unsettling plot twist. His simple, punchy storytelling is interrupted by moments of heightened lyricism in a way that brings to mind a stripped-down version of Denis Johnson’s fiction. Like Johnson, Martin exploits a kindhearted yet bewildered narrator to draw us into his shady world. Poetic moments leap out of the minimalist description, such as when a foiled robber looks “like a sparrow trapped in a room full of closed windows.”
Although readers will enjoy How to Sell’s rush of illicit activities, Martin is up to much more. A professor at the University of Missouri who specializes in the philosophy of deception, Martin underpins his propulsive narration with existential concerns: When does deception become self-deception? Do the lies we tell define who we are? Can everything be bought and sold? How to Sell is many things: gritty, sly, funny, and devastating. But most of all, it is an honest novel about dishonesty—which, in times like these, is just the kind of book we need.
Lincoln Michel's writing has appeared most recently in the Oxford American, elimae, and The Rumpus. He is a coeditor of Gigantic magazine