Clancy Martin, How To Sell

High-end jewellery is the name of the game in How to Sell, the debut novel by Calgary-born philosophy professor Clancy Martin. But in this world of exotic saleswomen and shady dealings, pretty much everything can be acquired for the right price: sex, loyalty, prestige—everything except a clear conscience.

After being expelled from his Alberta high school for trying to hawk a stolen set of graduation rings, 16-year-old Bobby Clark relocates to Texas to join up with his older brother Jim at a bustling and almost certainly crooked jewellery store in Fort Worth. Just like his brother, Bobby is a natural salesman. Unfortunately, he also takes a little too easily to the lifestyle and all its flashy perks, a dangerous mixture of cocaine, wads of cash, and Jim’s comely girlfriend, Lisa.

The reason the jewellery industry (not to mention the novel as a whole) is full of these kinds of sharks is because nihilism runs the show; nothing means anything to anyone here. As Bobby’s boss puts it, the problem “is people getting hung up on this notion of intrinsic value. It’s the silliest damn thing. There ain’t no intrinsic value to a diamond except in a drill bit. And that’s an instrument.”

Martin himself spent years in the fine jewellery business, though the book is surprisingly light on juicy insider anecdotes. When Bobby does rattle off a technique or two, like the mind games involved in selling diamonds to young couples, his otherwise deadened and unconvincing hard-boiled narration jumps to life. For the most part, though, he’s as opaque to the reader as he is to his customers. We’re never on the inside of the con—we never even find out which parts of the store’s operation are legitimate, if any—which leads to the nagging suggestion that we’re the ones really being conned.

Not a good feeling. Indeed, How to Sell’s packaging may be bold and alluring, but the contents are unmistakably flimsy.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 304 pp, $30, hardcover

(review originally appeared in The Georgia Straight, July 2, 2009)