Bill of Goods

Shady dealings and duplicity at a Fort Worth jewelry superstore form the central premise of How To Sell, the debut novel by former Dallas merchant Clancy Martin. The art of the deal, or rather the hustle, makes up the better-crafted stretches of this coming-of-age story, one informed by the author’s experience in the retail jewelry trade.

In one exemplary passage that takes place on the sales floor, Bobby Clark, the young protagonist who has followed his older brother Jim to Texas, marvels at the way his sibling can pass off a used Rolex as new. Jim tosses the watch in as bait for a much bigger sale to a customer who’s losing his judgment after being plied with cheap scotch. The booze, said to be a 30-year-old batch, is as genuine as “the counterfeit Rolex papers, and the counterfeit ‘Rottexx’ watches we sold for fifty bucks a pop, and knockoff Mexican Swatches that looked exactly like the real thing (even the Swatch rep couldn’t tell the difference).” By contrast, the cocaine that fuels Bobby, his brother and other wayward members of the sales force is the real McCoy.

When we first meet him, Bobby is stealing his mother’s wedding ring, “a hundred-year-old Art Nouveau band with eleven diamonds in two rows across the finger, garnets that were sold as rubies in the centers of tiny roses on both sides, and hand-engraved scrollwork on the underside where it held the skin.”

Bobby is 16 when he leaves his mother in Calgary to join the fast-money jewelry business. He shows no early qualms about participating in the store’s various bait-and-switch schemes, and he easily expands into dipping into the till and the stock for his own profit. But when a vulnerable housewife arrives at the Fort Worth Deluxe Diamond Exchange to sell a valuable ring that Jim is prepared to buy for a tenth of its true value, Bobby directs her to a more honest jeweler and tells her how much to settle for, suggesting at least a hint of morality.

The immorality of this soul-draining commercial world is Martin’s preoccupation here, and he fairly well knocks readers across the head with it when Jim’s girlfriend, one of the superstore’s saleswomen, later reappears as a hooker who claims she’s entered a more honest line of work.

The novel’s stripped-down style works fairly well as a window into all sorts of dirty dealing, and Martin shows flashes of skill, but ultimately, How to Sell is defined by its failures. The author owned a jewelry store in Dallas, as well as the wine bar Cork, before he enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin and earned a doctorate in philosophy in 2003. But Martin, now a professor of philosophy and business ethics at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, does little to conjure a sense of place. He uses real names (The Mansion on Turtle Creek serves as a frequent trysting pad), but nearly all of these are in Dallas—a small but vexing matter for a novel supposedly set in Fort Worth.

How to Sell also demonstrates the difficulty of writing fully fleshed characters. Too often here, as with Bobby’s eccentric cliché of a father, we get results that fall well short of the 10-karat hype (unearned comparisons to John Updike and Raymond Carver) accompanying the book.

With its hot sex, moral abandon and luxury-brand namedropping—a parade of Montblanc, Lalique, Cartier, Mercedes, Manolo Blahnik—Martin’s novel amounts to a middling beach read. It aspires to more, but off the sales floor, in the cold light of home, the shiny object reveals itself as cubic zirconia set in thin gold plate.

Thomas Korosec is a freelance writer living in Dallas.

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Published at 12:00 am CST