All that glitters can be sold


How to Sell: I love the title with its echoes of business advice books. It's easy to imagine someone picking up Clancy Martin's novel to get tips on closing a sale - only to get a shock.

But I hope the book buyer will keep reading. How to Sell is told by a 16-year-old named Bobby Clark. Bobby is expelled from his Toronto high school and heads for Fort Worth. His brother Jim offered him a job there in a jewelry emporium. Bobby is naïve but he's also amoral. He steals his own mother's wedding ring to pawn for cash. But he does it all for a girl he loves -- who doesn't even care about him.

People mistake Bobby's bewilderment and eagerness for innocence. But he also has this talent. Working in the Fort Worth jewelry store may teach Bobby how to fake white gold as platinum, how to pass off a cheap, used Rolex as a brand new expensive model. And he certainly learns a lot about using booze, cocaine and crystal meth to get through the frantic days on the selling floor.

But when it comes to selling, that's an art young Bobby Clark has in his family DNA.  Bobby and Jim's father is an ailing New Age minister, part guru, part con-man. He keeps popping up whenever his latest church has failed or whenever he needs serious medical help. Bobby says that his father had lied to him thousands of times. And if you told him he'd lied he would deny it with a sincere heart.

For author Clancy Martin, the art of selling is the art of storytelling, an act of imagination.  While trying to re-set a diamond, the store has ruined it. And now Bobby must convince a favorite client that his wife really wants a different diamond for Christmas. The following is from the audiobook version of How to Sell, read by Paul Michael Garcia

So I was trying to up-sell Morgan to a much larger diamond that I did not yet possess but had invented in my imagination.... Morgan thought his wife did not like ovals, which was true, but I had confided in him that she had oohed and ahed over a seven-carat oval that I had in my office (false) that unfortunately was unavailable (true)... This is how to sell. A golden lie in a nest of truths.

Clancy Martin is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Missouri. He's said that How to Sell is about deception -- which was the topic of his doctoral dissertation at UT-Austin. Obviously, it is about deception. Bobby and Jim lie to their customers, their boss, their wives, their meth-addict girlfriends. But How to Sell is also about betrayal -- mutual betrayals. An older saleswoman named Lisa, a dream woman Bobby calls her, takes up with him. But she happens to be Jim's ex-girlfriend. So Bobby is constantly wondering, does Jim know about them? Does Bobby's wife know? Are Jim and Lisa conspiring behind his back?

Bobby spends his spare time reading the philosopher Spinoza, specifically his book on ethics. He learns that there's no such thing as intrinsic value. Ooutside of its use as a drill bit, a diamond has no real value except for how much people are willing to pay or it. That's a foundation of free market capitalism. But there's a flaw in it. Human beings have intrinsic value. If you believe they don't, then, to a degree, you've stopped being human. And by the end of How to Sell, that's what Bobby faces. Losing himself or losing others.

With its clipped, deadpan prose and its young, sordid characters, How to Sell reads like an early Denis Johnson story or a chilled-out crime novel. With everyone betraying everyone else, some sort of caper seems to be gelling. There's real tension and suspicion in the air.

But crime is not actually the novel's concern.

Tragedy is.

First published on
June 10, 2009 3:00 PM |



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