Annie Dewitt reviews Clancy Martin’s novel, How to Sell.
It was best not to ask, and tie him straight to the pole. He gravitated toward it regardless the moment he was caught. “Cuff me,” he seemed to say. It was late in the summer of ’86 when Ricky Dyson and I discovered the pole in my parents’ garage and binding each other to it with old strands of jump rope. A good tie-up or a tap on the back of your bike wheel with the big red whiffle ball bat was the punishment for speeding down the driveway. That summer Ricky was hitting puberty and I, though dwarfing him by a year or two, had acquired my first two-piece. Most afternoons we rode our bikes around the driveway and invented games of traffic cop. As there were only two of us, one person played the cop and the other person played multiple drivers at once. This was never a problem as Ricky had enough recklessness in his blood to fill a whole highway. It was us and the outdoors. We needed to get caught doing something.
How you got out of jail all depends on how you tell it. Ricky might recall the alphabetical 50 states recitation. But, to my mind, it was all about the kiss. To be freed from the pole, you had to suffer the peck. As Ricky was, more often than not, the one in jail, this deal worked in his favor. One particular peck stands out in my mind. It was the first time we’d decided on this new and unique punishment. I was unfamiliar with boys and kissing, not necessarily in order of importance. An innocent at heart, Ricky balked a bit at the idea, but I insisted. As I was scanning his face for the appropriate spot to peck him, I saw my mother standing in the doorway to the garage.
The incident wasn’t mentioned until that night over dinner. “He made me do it,” I said.
I recently flashed back to this moment while reading the opening passage of Clancy Martin’s much-anticipated novel, How to Sell, out from FSG this week. A thrill, I should add, that ranks somewhere on par with the first time I encountered Barry Hannah’s “Water Liars.” Martin’s novel opens with the same lyrical sucker punch: “Our father told it that Jim was caught dressing up in my grandmother’s black Mikimotos when he was scarcely two years old, but the first time I considered jewelry was the morning I stole my mother’s wedding ring.”
Martin’s narrator, Bobby Clark, is just the kind of bighearted, underhanded crook that exists in a Hannah novel, the kind that you fall in love with while he strips you of your soul and your money and then gets you killed. Newly minted lonely heart and recent high school dropout, the minute Bobby steps off the plane from Canada and into his brother Jim’s jewelry business at the Fort Worth Deluxe Diamond Exchange, he discovers his inner sell. What ensues is the kind of coming of age tale where you think the person’s going about aging ass-backwards; thrown into the world as an adult, he’s made to swim blindly towards his own innocence later in an effort to recapture something of the naiveté of youth.
Unlike other drug-induced tales of public deception and private deceit, perhaps the most chilling aspect of Bobby’s professional oeuvre is the impenetrable clarity which he brings to the recounting of his own story. Divided in two sections, Part One of the book reflects an almost myopic distaste for the sort of wide-angle shots which might lend the reader a moment’s footnote. In short, it’s all about Bobby and the biz. There is a thickness to the first section of the book which gives one the sense that, like any good pitch, the narrative has been constructed on the premise that if given a moment’s pause, the story risks loosing some of its ground. Fortunately, Martin is a writer who can make good on that adage. In his hands, you get the sense that Bobby is a man who’s too smart to be broken. Even in the moment, he remains guarded by a panoramic remove outside the sphere of his own influence. Marriage and child already alien accounts which, like any good client, he manages at arms distance, when it all comes crashing down on him, he’ll be the one walking away with his back to the flame.
Though a terrific amount of levity is wielded by the narrative in the opening section, the comparative sparseness of the prose in Part Two gives the book at large the sort of acutely crafted polish that lends Martin’s style its celebrity and has created the sort of mystique around his sentences for which he is already unmistakably known. Written in short, often highly imagistic sections, the closing section of the novel adopts the sort of arch sophistication reminiscent of linguistic triumphs such as Christine Schutt’s brilliant novel Florida, a then National Book Award Finalist. It is perhaps no coincidence that here too the gritty fallout of the narrative’s lead-up is laid bare. Desperate to win the heart of his ex-mistress-turned-prostitute Lisa—a habit, like all the others, borrowed from his brother—Bobby’s own paranoid fantasies of deception take a fatal turn when he tries to buy love: the meanest cold-hearted sucker of all.
In short, How To Sell reminded me of so many bests: the opening of Raising Arizona, the line, “The first time I met Ed was in the county lock up in Tempe, Arizona;” this passage in “Water Liars”—“I don’t want anybody’s pity. I just want to explain. I’ve got good hopes of a job over at Alabama next year. Then I’ll get myself among higher-paid liars, that’s all;” Ricky Dyson, the peck and tying him to the pole.
Written in a prose that spares no velocity, How To Sell has you out the door having spent your emotional grocery money. As Hannah said, like the best of liars, there ain’t “no poor-mouthing here.” Each sentence relishes in constructing it’s own “big loose one.”