Clancy Martin has written his debut novel just like its protagonist, Bobby Clark, sells his first piece of jewelry: The deal falls right into his lap—the book is a ready-made success.
How to Sell tells the story of Bobby and his initiation, first as an invisible office hand at the Fort Worth Deluxe Diamond Exchange, later as a jewelry seller, and finally as his own boss. The rise—and, to an extent, fall—of Bobby Clark the jeweler reads like a coming-of-age story that bottoms out. Here, American noir is in full flower; there is a dash of Raymond Carver about the book, but something even darker pulls at its seams.
For all its extravagances, the jewelry business hews to a simple bottom line: Rolexes and diamonds.
Martin is the ideal person to spin out the tale. Now a philosophy professor and translator, he spent years in the jewelry trade. And it shows. The novel is full of gems, details like this one: All Swiss watches are shown in jewelry stores with their hands at 10-to-two because years ago Rolex set the trend. (“If you try a different hand position on the watches you will see they got it right.”) Where the goods are extravagant and flashy, the characters are there to match. There is great people-watching to be had in this book—quirky backroom handlers and middlemen; gun-toting vigilantes; gruff, able-handed repairmen; and, of course, the sellers in all their unctuous, deal-making splendor. Bobby shuttles through their ranks, rubbing shoulders with them all.
He takes right to the scene. His first sell is a Rolex, which he unloads on a customer with a charming mix of nervy unease (“I had not wanted to shake his hand because my palms were wet with sweat”) and savvy resilience. He’s even comfortable with the fungible material of the trade. As he tells a lover—haltingly for a 16-year-old kid, which is all Bobby is when first arrives on the scene—“I was raised by bankrupts. That teaches you not to take property very seriously.” But for all his early successes, all his grit and rough-and-tumble know-how, there is something unsettling about Bobby’s apprenticeship.
If the lying and counterfeiting come easily to the kid, it may be that other, weightier, and more important things in his life never come at all. His mother is absent almost from the very beginning, his father plainly crazy. All Bobby’s got is his brother, who is in the thick of the trade himself. Before long, the illusions, lies, and deceptions that surround Bobby in the store bleed into his life. And by the novel’s end, he realizes that he’s done more than sell his customers certain deceptions; he’s sold himself on them, and some of these deceptions prove deadly.
Sure, this may all sound flat and schematic. The only stumbling block for the reader early on is to get past the feeling that this is a story that must have been told before, that the drama is maybe a bit overcooked. I doubted at first; I fought through some restless moments in the early chapters. But How to Sell really picks up, and what at first blush looks like lesser virtues turns out to be the scaffolding of a fulfilling design. Martin has slyly pulled off a rather subtle novelistic trick. For all its extravagances, the jewelry business hews to a simple bottom line: Rolexes and diamonds. At the heart of the book is just that—a description of a diamond. “The diamond is designed to hide everything one might otherwise see. That is the specific virtue of the cutter. That is the function of the diamond. Like a woman’s beauty. To hide its own flaws.”
Martin is a true admirer of diamonds, and because of it, the book is cut a bit like the precious stone itself. The ex-jeweler in him gravitates toward the fine-grained, the alexandrite necklaces and platinum bezels, the fake diamond papers and industry legerdemain. But the real charm of the book comes from the philosopher in Martin, his obvious thrill in the virtue of deception and in its inevitable Catch-22. To maneuver in the trade and to stay afloat in his own life, Bobby needs to deceive himself and others. He is like the cutter, hiding the diamonds’ flaws, only worse. As the seller, he knows the flaws of his goods secondhand (because he’s only selling, not making, the jewelry) and covers over their artifice with his own. But all this needed deception amounts to a crisis of value.
“The problem… if you want to know the truth… is people getting hung up on the notion of intrinsic value. It’s the silliest damn thing. There ain’t no intrinsic value to a diamond except in the drill bit,” growls Bobby’s first boss. How to Sell is all about how Bobby comes to internalize this reappraisal of value. At one point, Bobby talks down a customer whose recently purchased watch has never arrived at the store because, alas, there is no watch in the first place. He blames the “hold-up” on an imaginary broker he calls (off the cuff) “Schopenhauer.” As he spins out his story, all we hear are Bobby’s words, not the customer’s interjections on the other end of the line. Martin is smart to structure it that way because it conveys Bobby’s growing isolation. He stages these elaborate deceptions to a largely empty theater. “That’s right, sir, like the philosopher, Arthur, yes that’s right sir… impressive that you would know that, sir, if you don’t mind me saying so. But our man is Swiss, not German.” The imaginative, unflappable performer in Bobby has as his counterpart a paralyzed, lost soul staring emptily past the drill bit and wondering if there’s any way out of the downward spiral.
For the philosophically minded, the reference to Schopenhauer is a clue as to what is happening to Bobby. But for the rest of us, there is more than enough to take in. How to Sell accelerates through the twists and turns of a world utterly upended. And if the two-toned Rolexes don’t grab you, the Russian mobsters just might.
Jonathan Blitzer is a freelance writer and translator living in New York. He also works at the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU Law School.