It’s the opposition that defines our age: Wall Street vs. Main Street. In the first presidential debate of the 2008 election, Senators Obama and McCain invoked it five times in as many minutes. A few days earlier, another Senator had publicly suggested that Wall Street owed Main Street an apology. Soon, Governor Sarah Palin would get in on the action, declaring that it was “a toxic mess, really, on Main Street that [was] affecting Wall Street.” Though maybe it was vice versa? No matter: we knew whose side this self-identified “hockey mom” was on. Wall Street was the province of Gordon Gekko and Bernie Madoff, bad guys selling bad investments. Whereas Main Street was the home of the God-fearing consumer. In other words, of you and me.
This Manichean view of American business – of predatory salesmen and guileless buyers – dates back at least as far as Dreiser. At times of widespread guilt, it assures us of our own innocence. But a story is itself a kind of transaction – if it seems too good to be true, it probably is – and our current tale of two Streets, parallel lines that never meet, obscures what actually happens in a marketplace, which is, by definition, the place where buyer and seller converge.
Onto this shadowy realm, Clancy Martin’s debut novel, How to Sell, shines a clarifying light. The book, an unholy amalgam of Nietzsche and Horatio Alger, tells us what it was like to come of age as a luxury jeweler at the end of the 20th Century. The author, now a professor of philosophy and business ethics, knows whereof he speaks; he sold watches and diamonds during the Clinton-era boom. Nonetheless, his novel lets neither salesmen nor customers off the hook. Indeed, it mounts a sustained attack on the distinction between the two. In this way, it represents an important correction to our understanding of the bust.
How to Sell opens with its narrator, 16-year-old Bobby Clark, preparing to move from Calgary to Dallas to join his big brother, Jim, in the jewelry business. (His father, a charismatic but pathologically unreliable raconteur, warns him against this move, but since when does a 16-year-old listen to his old man?) The lights are bright, and the city is big: minutes after stepping off the plane, Bobby is sampling cocaine in the back of a white Cadillac and lolling with his head on the lap of a beautiful woman. “She looked like a woman in a magazine,” he muses. “She didn’t look like an everyday normal woman who might be sitting in a car with you.” The book’s plot will turn on Bobby’s ingenuous attraction to this woman, and, more generally, to whatever attracts Jim. He seems willing to go to any length to emulate his brother.
But Bobby’s first-person voice – naïve, colloquial, and appealingly impolitic – turns out to be a canny suspension. Behind the teenager’s wide-eyed sense of discovery hovers a retrospective reevaluation, as if an older Bobby is looking over his own shoulder. “Next time bring the customer a mirror,” he thinks, after selling his first Rolex. Then he starts to amend himself
Especially a black customer, I knew. The more you serve them the better. Later I found out that this, too, was false. In fact just the opposite is the case. But it takes years to learn how to sell.
It is the unstable interaction between the two Bobbys that propels the novel beyond easy satire. Bobby the narrator wants to stage the novel as a bildungsroman. Meanwhile, Bobby the character refuses to grow up. Instead, he descends deeper into the glossy moral morass into which Jim has enthusiastically plunged.
The Clark brothers’ incorrigible nature turns out to be a boon to readers. Much of the pleasure of the novel’s first half derives from its anthropological immersion in the world behind the jewelry cases. We learn, for example, that a watch looks best with its hands at ten and two; that a repeat customer is called a “crow;” that the Gemological Institute of America’s ratings system for diamonds “would discombobulate the average Texan.” And gradually, we learn with Bobby that his employer’s empire is built on fraud. Items sold by phone are never delivered. Rolexes are appraised at three to four times their value, boosting insurance payouts. Jewels are pilfered, customers misled. The store’s own gem ratings are invented. Everybody, from customer to salesman, is swimming in money.
The historical backdrop here is the fall of 1987, and though the stock market crash of that year gets nary a mention, it is difficult, circa 2009, not to see How to Sell as a commentary on American business in general. For watches, read mortgages. For Gemological Institute of America, read Moody’s. It took Alan Greenspan 60 years in finance to uncover a flaw in the model of the self-regulating free market, where price reflects value. It takes Bobby Clark a few weeks. “It’s the silliest damn thing,” his boss, Mr. Popper, tells him. “There ain’t no intrinsic value to a diamond except in a drill bit.” Nor does Bobby find himself improved by this knowledge. Instead, a decade after the collapse of Mr. Popper’s jewelry store, which concludes the novel’s first act, Bobby doubles down.
The second half of How to Sell, tracing the quick but spectacular flame-out of the store the Clark brothers open together, is more depraved than the first half, and less fun. Glitter gives way to rot. Bobby’s brother and father appear in various states of psychological deterioration. In their ever-more-elaborate manipulations of each other and of Bobby, they start to resemble each other. Bobby himself seems disoriented and paranoid. (Serial adultery and chronic abuse of stimulants will do that to you.) In one of the novel’s most horripilating moments, he discovers a crab louse on the head of his infant daughter. But like the ace salesman he is, he’s always ready with a great line of patter. The morning after sleeping with a hooker, he tells us, “I didn’t have a hangover. My first appointment wasn’t until one. What a good day.” Indeed, Bobby seems to believe that he can not only convince a “crow” that black is white and bad is good, but that the terms are therefore meaningless. Thus Martin, the philosophy professor, makes Bobby a kind of test case for Mr. Popper’s theory of value, carried to its logical end.
It bears saying that every novelist is himself a sort of salesman, and the goods Martin is offering in How to Sell are not without flaws – or, as gem dealers apparently call them, “inclusions.” The father’s mental decline, which should be the book’s emotional center of gravity, happens largely offstage. The tragic fate of the aforementioned Lisa, which triggers the book’s final reckoning, doesn’t hold up under inspection. Martin’s way of concealing his weaknesses with frequent page breaks and wry elisions is both technically deft and, circa 2009, somewhat mannered. But, with a jeweler’s eye, he polishes what remains to a high shine. And so we stick with Bobby as he learns his final lesson. Every salesman, it turns out, is also a customer, and every customer a salesman. That is: Bobby has been buying his own bullshit.
What makes Bobby’s story such natural (and, in retrospect, inevitable) material for a first novel is the way eager sellers and bullish buyers and young men in novels resemble each other: they are innocents. In America, we tend to view “innocence” as a synonym for guiltlessness, but it also carries Old World connotations of gullibility, of stubborn resistance to facts. Our greatest literary salesmen, from Willy Loman to Jay Gatsby, have it in spades.
In addition to its rather straightforward philosophy lesson, then (Values: can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em), How to Sell also offers us some novel perspective on our current economic and cultural situation. Perhaps the Wall Streeters who sold each other on subprime fool’s gold are “innocent” after all, though not quite in the sense their lawyers would want to maintain. And perhaps we innocents are a little guilty. Whether through floating interest rates or NINJA loans or the incredible expanding 401Ks that depended on them, we have allowed ourselves to be seduced, like Bobby Clark, by the old huckster’s promise of something for nothing.
In March of this year, just after the AIG bonus scandal, outraged populists rode charter-buses to Greenwich, Connecticut, to ogle the mansions of the company’s executives (an act of protest befitting the zeitgeist). “It makes me absolutely sick,” the neighbor of one AIG worker told The New York Times. “It’s disgusting what these people have done.” The neighbor had lived down the street from “these people” for years – had presumably watched her fortune grow along with theirs – but it hadn’t stopped her from assimilating the most relentlessly marketed truth of our time: those rich, they’re not like you and me. How to Sell, which may just be the first great novel of the current economic crisis, suggests a harder truth: in buying into the promise of our own innocence, perhaps we on Main Street have been selling ourselves short.