SPECIAL TO THE AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Sunday, June 21, 2009
Clancy Martin's debut novel, "How to Sell" — set in the Dallas-Fort Worth jewelry business in the 1980s and '90s — is the kind of book that leaves you feeling dirty. It rubs off on you and makes a mark you'll want to try to scrub off.
First, provided you've ever bought jewelry or a Swiss watch, you might wonder at the authenticity of the thing, question whether you got taken. Is that Rolex bogus? Is your wedding band made of real gold or platinum? Or is it just plated something or other? A fraud?
"How to Sell" centers on two brothers, Bobby and Jimmy, who were separated when their parents divorced (the younger brother, Bobby, lived in Calgary, Alberta, with his mother, while Jimmy wound up in Scottsdale, Ariz., with his father). They reunite when Jimmy invites Bobby to work with him at the Fort Worth Deluxe Diamond Exchange. The year is 1987 and Bobby is a 16-year-old high school dropout when he starts work. At first, he is given menial tasks — cleaning showcases, setting watches — until he sells a gold Rolex President for $4,995. The sale was a mistake, it turns out, since the watch was the display model. All the while, Jimmy introduces Bobby to drugs, fast cars, posh living and loose women. Key among the women is Lisa, Jimmy's sometime mistress, for whom Bobby falls.
"How to Sell" is a roman à clef, based on Martin's own life, which, according to publicity material from his publisher, included a career as a "conman and luxury jeweler" in Dallas in the 1980s and '90s. Today, Martin, who was born in Canada but graduated from Baylor and later the University of Texas with a doctorate — writing a dissertation on Friedrich Nietzsche's theory of deception under the late Robert C. Solomon — teaches philosophy at the University of Missouri at Kansas City.
Martin is a fantastic fiction writer, and in "How to Sell" he weaves together both a gripping tale of debauchery and a more nuanced work of philosophical inquiry. The result is a very readable, if somewhat didactic, morality tale that is also extremely edifying about business, greed and human nature.
The "shark tank" of the jewelry business that Martin describes is like a foreign land, one you think you know, but come to realize you can't begin to comprehend. There are the minor scams — putting off customers who've paid for watches that may never get delivered by lying that the watch is delayed by customs, or selling someone a $400 cleaning and adjustment on an automatic-movement watch because the customer thinks it's broken, when it's just stopped because automatic movements self-wind only when worn. Then there's the big stuff, like selling used Rolexes as new, or selling diamonds with bogus papers.
Frequently, one character or another is imparting a lesson to Bobby. "In this business, always trust your eyes," a Jewish diamond dealer tells him, just before the old man pistol-whips a would-be robber. A Swiss watch dealer known as Granddad teaches Bobby "the twenty-two logical fallacies." When Bobby's not hustling a buck, he's reading books on Zen and Buddhism at bookstores, a habit picked up from his father, a semi-homeless, former Canadian Olympic goalie who wanders the Southern United States and Caribbean sleeping with women and starting churches — a fallen Nietzschean Übermensch if there ever was one.
The book sets up a dichotomy between faith in the material — what you can see and feel, such as diamonds and gold — and the immaterial — what you can't see and must simply trust, such as loyalty and love. The conclusion is that value is in the eye of the beholder.
This is not a book about redemption: Nearly all the characters are bent. The men are disloyal, greedy, self-centered philanderers and crooks, while the women are almost all literal or figurative prostitutes. Some characters come to a bad end, while others are merely subsisting until the inevitable crash.
Mostly, "How to Sell" concerns the constant power struggle of the buy-sell relationship. In this, it is Nietzschean to the core.
What you're likely to remember — aside from the queasy feeling you'll be left with — is to distrust salesmen even more than perhaps you already do. You might also learn to pity them: As a jeweler named Old John observes near the book's end of Bobby, who is now in his mid-20s, with a wife, a child and two girlfriends — one, Lisa, now living as a prostitute, the other, his chief employee, a gun-toting beauty — "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 make a ... dollar out of four quarters and a can of glue, if you want to hear the truth of it."
Ultimately, though, it is Martin, the professor, instructing us on everything from how to sell a diamond engagement ring to a couple to why men in the industry prefer stainless steel Blancpains and IWC watches to gold Rolexes. The premise of the book boils down to this: "This is how to sell," Martin writes. "A golden lie in a nest of truths." That's also a heck of a description of fiction writing itself.
How much of "How to Sell" is true to Martin's own life story doesn't really matter. As Nietzsche wrote, "All things are subject to interpretation. Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth," and this is one powerful novel, offering an unsettling, gritty and raw view of the business of life.