In 1982, David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross raised selling to an art form. In 2000, the movie Boiler Room reduced it to a cliché. Where Mamet made the salesman appear seductive, mighty and contemptible, the apotheosis of our late capitalist society, in Boiler Room Ben Affleck did his best impersonation of a David Mamet character and looked, well, like Ben Affleck doing an impersonation of a David Mamet character.
Now, what makes Clancy Martin’s new novel about jewelry salesmen, How to Sell, interesting isn’t that it departs from the territory writers like Mamet have explored over the last two-and-a-half decades. What makes it interesting is that its content, on the whole, sticks to the familiar. Martin takes a story we all know and recognize and tells it quickly and effectively. For readers, the book is a blur; we pick it up and lose ourselves in the delirious joy of the story. It becomes clear, in fact, upon reading the first few chapters of this fast-paced, exhilarating novel—fingers fumbling to turn page after page after page, the urge to consume growing greater and greater, the desire to finish becoming with every sentence more acute—that How to Sell is not really about a conman selling jewelry. It is instead a novel written during a crisis in print culture about selling the novel.
How to Sell begins as a Horatio Alger story, of sorts, set in 1987. In the opening scene of the book, the narrator, Bobby Clark, a 16-year-old kleptomaniac from Calgary, Canada, describes selling his mother’s wedding ring at a pawn shop without her knowledge. The ring, he explains, is white gold with a hundred-year-old Art Nouveau band—eleven diamonds in two rows across the finger, garnets in the centers of tiny roses on both sides, and hand-engraved on the underside. “It was,” he proclaims, “the only precious thing she had left.” Bobby has stolen the ring because he believes his girlfriend will leave him for someone else (a kid from another high school, a basketball player), and he thinks the money he’ll get from the ring will be enough to win her back.
This introductory episode is significant not only for the way it ties together stealing and selling, showing how the two are mutually reinforcing and inextricably linked, and for the way it sets up the basic narrative template of the first half of the book, in which Bobby steals something, then is forced to face the consequences. It’s also significant because it demonstrates how Bobby and other characters in How to Sell are willing to destroy normal social relationships, especially ones between family members, in hopes of obtaining wealth and happiness. A few pages later Bobby recounts how, as a boy, he would leave his own neighborhood and look at the houses in Mount Royal, a richer nearby area:
You know what that’s like: when it is very cold and motionless, because the snow is coming straight down, it hangs in circles in the streetlights, and inside the houses there is calm or happy movement, as though people are eating and laughing, and their lamps by their windows are like gold and jewels…. These houses were enormous: three, four, five times the size of ours, with larger and faster cars, yards like fields, and they were made of stone and brick, but nevertheless they seemed welcoming, they were warm places.
In his search for prosperity and happiness, Bobby is inevitably drawn to the US, to Dallas, where his older brother Jim works at a jewelry store. The life of a salesman is alluring and glamorous, and it isn’t long—actually, it’s the moment Bobby steps off the plane—before Jim whisks him away in a white Cadillac limousine and gives him lots and lots of cocaine.
Like most stories of this kind, the first half of the book is more or less episodic and involves Bobby’s encounters with a variety of parent figures who teach him what it means to be a successful, middle-class American. It soon becomes clear, though, that the two people he learns the most from, and who are responsible for most conflicts in the story, are Jim and Jim’s girlfriend Lisa, also a salesperson at the store. After Bobby is introduced to Lisa, he quickly falls in love and, with a little persistence, has an affair with her behind Jim’s back—or so it seems at the beginning. By the end of the first part of How to Sell it’s unclear who knows what when, and which of the three is controlling and selling the other two. The tensions in the love triangle culminate when Bobby steals $10,000 from the store and gives half to Lisa. Before anything can be resolved, however, Martin sends the three characters in different directions: Lisa runs away, the jewelry store shuts down, and Bobby returns to Calgary.
The second part of How to Sell adopts a different narrative model altogether: that of an Updike novel. It takes place nine years later, around 1996. In the intervening years Bobby has managed to marry, have a child, and open a jewelry store in Texas with Jim. If the first half of the book is about seduction, drawing both Bobby and the reader into the sexy and hollow world of jewelry sales, the second half is about the problems of running a business and raising a family, and how middle-class American lives are not as happy as they seem. There is also a formal shift between the two sections: the episodic style of the first section is replaced by a more diffuse plot construction— everything in Bobby’s life feels messy and chaotic.
At first, the plot structure of How to Sell doesn’t feel coherent. The institutions each part confronts and the tone each adopts seem somehow not unified or consistent. But what holds the two sections together is the overriding sense that the American dream is tied up with selling, that beneath long-cherished ideas like “opportunity” and “prosperity” there lies a dark abyss of corruption that spoils everything else we hold dear: the ways we form communities and relationships, even the ways we talk to each other. Not long after we learn about Bobby’s crumbling marriage, dysfunctional affair with another saleswoman, and razor-thin profit-margins at the store, Lisa returns, and Bobby’s life becomes truly hectic. Although Bobby, Jim, and Lisa all emerge pretty much unscathed from the first half of the novel, in the second half their triangle disastrously falls apart. Bobby learns his final lesson and leaves the jewelry business, it seems, forever.
If the groundbreaking revelation of How to Sell doesn’t feel too groundbreaking, that’s because it’s not. Mamet published Glengarry Glen Ross in 1982, during Reagan’s first term, also in the midst of recession. At that moment we needed a voice—a dark, irreverent voice—to cut through the television press conferences and expose the sleaze oozing underneath. Glengarry Glen Ross represented a vicious rejection of Reagonomics, showing people what self-interest actually is, not what it pretends to be. But now, when we find ourselves once again in economic turmoil, Clancy Martin emerges, using achingly familiar narrative devices and themes, to tell us what we already know: that greed is a sinister force capable of destroying the mechanisms that keep our society from falling apart.
Yet what makes How to Sell such a gripping book—more than the sex and cocaine—is the sense we have that we know where we’re going. The book traces the same narrative arc as its predecessors Wall Street and Boiler Room: the protagonist enters the world of selling, becomes seduced by it, sees its emptiness, then escapes. This familiarity is the reason the book’s ending feels so satisfying; it’s also the reason we forget about the novel the moment we set it aside. Mamet, in the early ’80s, condemned the free market and supply-side economics. Martin, in the first decade of the 21st century, recycles the breakthroughs of previous economic skepticism, serving up a story that is decidedly palatable, with a message we all by now acknowledge to be true. The characters who should be punished are punished, and the morals that should be conveyed are conveyed. How to Sell is the novel we want but don’t need, designed to confirm our expectations, not confront them. It is the novel meant to entertain, to be ravenously consumed. It is the novel, in short, that will sell.
In all fairness, Clancy Martin seems painfully aware of the book he’s written. Nowhere is the tension between selling and substance more palpable than in the character of Bobby. Bobby is bright, cunning, and inclined towards the literary. Throughout the novel Martin reminds us, again and again, that Bobby reads a lot. When he’s younger, he carries around books like Jonathan Livingston Seagull, On the Road, and Journey to the End of the Night. He alludes to Aladdin and the Pied Piper, Sherlock Holmes and Robin Hood, Schopenhauer, Borges, and the Autobiography of Yogi. This is the sort of reading list, Martin implies, that would make Bobby a human being of substance, if only he were not so wrapped up in selling. Towards the end of the book, a character named Old John—a wise man, the best jeweler at the store—asks, “‘When are you going to college, Bobby?’” This is the question Martin wants us to ask ourselves constantly throughout the book, from the moment when Bobby gets expelled from high school and sits outside reading Siddhartha, to the scene where he discusses Spinoza with an older businessman. Old John is not the first person to ask Bobby this question: Bobby says that his father and several other father-figures have all tried to teach him the same lesson.
When Bobby finally does leave selling, on the last page of How to Sell, it seems as though this escape will allow him to become a storyteller, to arrange his experiences in a meaningful way. But with its seductive, relentless plot, Bobby’s story begs the question: could he, as a writer, escape selling? Or are stories, and the novel, merely something else to sell? How to Sell ends with the two brothers on their way to the airport, where Bobby will leave Jim and the jewelry business behind:
“I don’t want to ask,” [Jim] said. “I don’t want to be pushy. But could you tell me when you think you’ll come back? I mean, so I know what to say to your customers?…”
“No Jim,” I said. “Tell them you don’t know when he’ll be back.”
The answer, Martin seems to suggest, is that Bobby has not escaped. Bobby, as a storyteller, has simply returned to the store.
If he were not a salesman, Martin implies, Bobby could have been a better person; so too, at a different moment, perhaps How to Sell could have been a greater novel. The ending of the book feels sad, but not because of what has happened to Bobby. It’s sad because Martin has somehow conveyed that every character, event, and choice in the book could have been different, if only the book itself weren’t so bound up in selling. This dissonance is the novel’s great achievement; it’s also the reason it isn’t very good. Clancy Martin seems convinced that How to Sell must first and foremost sell. The novel is forgettable, yes, but it is, at least, he must know, remarkably forgettable.