How to Sell is the kind of novel that leaves you feeling both a lot smarter and a lot dumber. Sure, you may know that if your brand-new two-tone ladies’ Rolex has suddenly stopped running, you probably just left it on the counter long enough to thwart the automatic winding mechanism, or that wiping a platinum Patek Philippe with a diamond cloth can scratch the soft metal. But did you know that a watch should always be displayed for sale with the hands set at ten and two? Or that a passing cloud can change the light of a room enough to chase a fatal flaw back inside a diamond? Or that if you are trying to impress your schizophrenic but still discerning father, you probably don’t want to show up for dinner wearing a quarter- ounce Chinese panda pinkie ring?
Such are the kind of useful lessons tossed into Clancy Martin’s darkly bewitching first novel like the marketer’s proverbial free gift. On the simplest level, How to Sell is the story of a sixteen-year-old high school dropout named Bobby Clark who moves from Calgary to Texas to apprentice in the fine jewelry business with his smooth-talking older brother, losing his innocence and making a lot of money along the way. But beyond the Kitchen Confidential –style revelations, it’s also about the stubbornly untransactional nature of love, and the difficulty we have in fully closing the deal. “You should hear all the love stories they tell me in this place,” a dealer confides in Bobby when he pawns his mother’s wedding ring to “buy back” the girlfriend who has left him for a grocery clerk. “A pawn shop is the place to learn about love.”
Bobby is a guileless thief and a natural-born storyteller—he’s pre-con the way other kids are pre-med. A few pages after stealing his mother’s ring from the window sill, he’s pinching family silver at late-night drinking parties and getting kicked out of school for fencing a case of stolen class rings. “But they aren’t even worth anything,” he protests. “You cannot expel me because of some fake rings.” If his choice of career seems overdetermined, well, it is. How to Sell is a dirty, sexy, fast-moving, and often very funny heist caper, only here the criminals are running the store.
The store in question is Fort Worth Deluxe Diamond Exchange in Texas. It’s 1987, and the place feels like Studio 54 with brighter lighting, cheesier music, and slightly inferior drugs. “They have the free market down here,” Bobby’s brother Jim tells him. “You are in a real country now.” Bobby’s first job is winding and setting the watches (always at ten and two), but the exotic cast of characters is soon schooling him in how to …