Bobby Clark, the protagonist of Clancy Martin’s debut novel, How to Sell, is a handsome teenage truant with great teeth, a bad influence for a brother, and a preternatural talent for both the short and the long con. On the book’s first page, he steals his mother’s wedding ring. Later, as he gets better at deceiving himself and others, he’ll work himself up to precious stones and five-figure stacks of petty cash at the Fort Worth Deluxe Diamond Exchange, the Texas store where he comes to work with his older brother, Jim, after fleeing his mother’s home in Canada.
Martin is a former jeweler and current philosophy professor at the University of Missouri, Kansas City. In his day job, he writes about love and lies and translates Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, four preoccupations Martin shares with Walker Percy, whose slightly aphasic characters seem to provide the deadpan and morally anguished template for Bobby Clark. Like many a Percy protagonist, the Clark clan’s relationship to reality might best be described as distant—their womanizing, mostly absentee father communicates with astral beings neither Jim nor Bobby can see, while both junior Clarks dissemble incessantly, not least to one another. “He had lied to me thousands of times,” observes Bobby about Jim, with the kind of clarity and acceptance that defines him. “And if you told him he lied he would deny it with a sincere heart. He was extraordinarily healthy. Psychologically, I mean.”
Martin’s short, direct sentences sometimes evoke Raymond Carver or Amy Hempel, but How to Sell is lurid compared to anything by either writer. One can easily imagine Gordon Lish’s pen angrily slashing out many of Bobby’s descriptions of Jim:
He enjoyed the same ease with women our father had, but because he lacked our dad’s energy he did not have sex with nearly so many of them. He could talk, though. He lied less than our father did. He was reasonable.
He did not know how to dress. He did not say hurtful things to other people. . . .
When I knew him better, from hotel rooms, three-day Ecstasy-and-cocaine-fed drunks, shared rooms in whorehouses, and overnight international flights, I learned that he would whimper in his sleep. By then, of course, I understood what he might have to fear.
By the end of How to Sell we, too, will know what Jim fears, but at the beginning, the younger Clark is naive. This will be the asset he’ll unknowingly use to sell his first Rolex at the Diamond Exchange, where the watches retail for $6,000 less than they do from the competition, though Bobby doesn’t yet know why.
“You spend the rest of your career trying to recapture that innocence,” he thinks. “Sinlessness and candor like that is a fierce advantage. But you can’t fake it.” Bobby, though, is a gifted salesman. That first Rolex will get him a job on the floor, selling; his sinlessness will attract Lisa, his brother’s dissipated girlfriend. Bobby falls in love at first sight, inside the limo Jim charters to pick him up from the airport. Lisa is an apparition, “a dream woman in a dream limousine,” offering 16-year-old Bobby bumps of coke and her lap to rest in. It will be for her that Bobby steals the most. And the endless eventual betrayals between Lisa and Bobby and Jim are what, in large part, How to Sell is about.
Bobby and Jim go into business for themselves after the Diamond Exchange is raided by federal agents on Christmas Eve, calling their new store Clark’s Precious Jewels. Bobby sells to their new customers by improvising riffs on Borges stories. He and Jim stack lies to the Lalique crystal chandelier in their store’s ceiling—lies to each other, their suppliers, their wives, their children, and their girlfriends, some of whom they unknowingly share. Eventually, reality asserts itself. “There ain’t no intrinsic value to a diamond except in a drill bit,” an older jeweler tells Bobby at one point. “Outside of religion you simply won’t find a dadblamed thing that will stand up to the scrutiny of intrinsic value. Least of all the truth.” This is the logic that both Clark brothers ultimately confront: If everything’s for sale—sex, family, love—then life becomes merely a matter of getting the best price.
Martin’s eye is cool and pitiless and unadorned: You could count the metaphors in this novel on two hands. Bobby is perceptive, but mostly amoral. When he catches his brother with the Polack, Bobby’s unlikely-named girlfriend and best saleswoman, in the middle of their store, it’s as if she were a different person: “Naked, across the room like that, she didn’t look like she thought about money as much as I knew she did. She looked so trustworthy. I thought, If you sold naked, no one could outsell you.” Then he fires her.