Monday, May 30, 2011

How to Sell, by Clancy Martin

This book is a perfect example of the kind of book I was thinking of when I started this blog. It hit the ground running with a cover story in the New York Times Book Review almost exactly two years ago, but when I decided to read it recently, I found that the paperback had been and gone in the bookstore I work in, and I had to order a copy in. This says nothing about the book, little about the store and less about the review, which I'll get to in a minute, but volumes about the state of the here today, gone tomorrow world of  the publishing industry as it stands today.

How to Sell is a first novel and follows the life and actions of a latter day Holden Caulfield (today I suppose we would call him an 'at risk youth') who has both the good and bad fortune at the time of his Caulfieldesque crisis of getting kicked out of school to have an older brother in the jewelry business in Fort Worth, Texas. His father is either crazy or a spiritual adept, or both, depending on your point of view, and he advises his younger son not to make the journey, seeing some bad juju in his future.

Crazy he may be, but he is also right. Bobby may not have been doing so well in Canada, but when he gets into the high end jewelry sales business, it's only a matter of time before he's really going to crash and burn. Doing lines of cocaine with his brother and his girlfriend as they head directly from the airport to the store--because there's every indication in the novel that the job is just as highly addictive a thing as the drugs--it's clear that these high flyers are really going further and further down the circles of hell.

In this kind of book, everything depends on the winningness of the protagonist's voice, and Bobby is very winning. It is partly in the candor with which he tells of the seamy side of selling jewelry--and man, are there a lot of scams!--but it's also that in certain telling moments, he reveals himself to be a moral being. The book is a very enjoyable ride through a certain seamy underworld, one which I suspect many readers will like being able to peer into without having to get their own hands dirty. At least, this was the case for me.

Martin now teaches philosophy at the University of Missouri, and because I was curious about how this informed his story, I did a bit more research than I usually do before putting up my blather. For instance, I took a look at that book review mentioned above. It was written by Tom McCarthy, who made his own debut splash with Remainder a few years ago.  I was more than a little surprised then, to find McCarthy, after giving the book a brief glance, becoming more exercised about the power of the blurbs than about the novel itself. While admitting  to enjoying the book, he took umbrage at the idea that Benjamin Kunkel had said it had the "inevitability of the classic" and that Jonathan Franzen had called it "greatly original". But what does this have to do with reviewing the book at hand. Surely we must leave the classic status of any current work to the future? Besides, I'm not sure that Kunkel was saying that it would inevitably be a classic. He may have been saying that fate befalls our hero on rather classical lines.

Another thing that surprised me was to what extent Martin's novel was autobiographical. He did come to the U.S. to work in the jewel business with his brother, he does or did have a crazy father, and at least the corner of the world of jewelry that he moved in was pretty much as seamy as the  novel portrays. He may be a high falutin' professor now, but by his own admission, in his former life, he was no better than he should have been, and sometimes a whole lot worse. I had been wondering why a professor of philosophy would write this book, but now I understand that he was drawing from experience.

The last thing to surprise me a bit was an interview I found with Martin, which again underscores the autobiographical aspect of the novel, and shows, I think that it was written out of a real sense of urgency and a desire to understand himself and the world, which is the opposite of the slick, opportunistic marketing that has become so much a part of the publishing industry today. In other words, it is not 'how to sell' at all.

Contrary to Kunkel's purported view, this little book does not seem at this moment destined to become a classic. All the more reason to go out and find a copy today, while you still can.

And believe me, whatever amount you may spend will be more than defrayed by the amount you'll be saving on jewelry.


  1. … a latter day Holden Caulfield (today I suppose we would call him an 'at risk youth')

    And you’re a latter-day Dorothy Parker.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  2. Well, thanks, Peter. Although I did visit the Algonquin once, I would disclaim that level of wit.

    I'd also disclaim that level of drinking, though on that, I could be wrong.

  3. That remark is closer to Dorothy Parker than I shall ever get to S.J. Perelman, I fear.

    My v-word: nuluck

  4. Nuluck is a very enigmatic combination of new luck and no luck. Which maybe says more about luck than we really want to know.