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How To Sell by Clancy Martin

December 14, 2010

This is the sordid story of a young scam artist jeweler, Bobby, and his scam artist brother. They work at a jewelry store in Fort Worth, Texas, earning their living by cheating customers with fake diamond jewelry and fake Rolex watches.  They trust no one, and cheat everyone, including each other. It is a depiction of life with no moral compass, where even blood forges bonds that break at the drop of a hat (or the passing of a long-legged looker, as it may be). The story is littered with drugs, cheating (of every sort), sex with prostitutes, violence and unkind words. It also contains an in-depth description of the jewelry selling and swindling business.

This is all fine. But at times it feels like Martin goes out of his way to show off his research. The story is actually more interesting when it gets into the more typical relationship drama and away from the drama of the store. In general, I’d say this book was interesting, though not great. But in researching Clancy Martin, I realized that there was a good deal of back story that changed the way I thought about the novel.

Martin is a professor of philosophy at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He has written numerous books, the titles of which read like thematic notes for How to Sell. The titles include: Love, Lies and Marriage; Honest Work; The Philosophy of Deception along with translations of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil. Is How to Sell meant to be an amoral microcosmos? Or perhaps one based on the Nietzschian morality that values wealth, strength, health and power over modern ideals.

It turns out, How to Sell is more autobiographical. It came across as extensively researched because Martin actually was a jewelry salesman in his youth. “I would say that, unfortunately, most of the book is lifted directly from my life—with some exaggeration and lots of omission,” Martin admitted in an interview with Newsweek. He recently went through a rough, suicidal patch and writing the book was a part of him working through it. Although his life has evened out, he still believes that one of the first steps of being a great salesman is self-deception. You have to believe what you’re selling.

All this is interesting. Unfortunately, I found it all slightly more interesting than the novel itself.

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