Clancy Martin's 'How to Sell': A Jewel of a Novel

Clancy Martin knows a lot about lying. He comes by it honestly—he's now an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, specializing in 19th- and 20th-century continental philosophy and business ethics, and he wrote his dissertation on deception. But he really learned how to lie in his youth, when he was a crackerjack jewelry salesman. Not as good as his brother, perhaps, but good enough to turn a fake Rolex into the real thing and money into the expression of love. "I do miss it," Martin admits. "I miss that feeling of being on the edge. Say what you will, there is something fun about deceiving people. It may be a sickness. Aristotle talks about it in the 'Nicomachean Ethics'."

Talking to Martin about deception can be unnerving. His voice, sweetened with sincerity, has the compulsive tones of a convert. Sincere people make good salesmen. So what to make of Clancy Martin—a man who wants to sell his debut novel while reclaiming his soul?

When he was young, selling was simple—a matter of getting a customer to buy into his fictions. "He was a very gifted liar," says his brother and former business partner, Darren. "We'd say storyteller—a wonderful storyteller." That much is still true, as Martin's novel, "How to Sell," makes clear. "How to Sell" is outrageous, theatrical and slicker than oil. It tells the tale of Bobby Clark, a high-school dropout who joins his older brother at a jewelry emporium in Texas. It's a festival of drugs, diamonds and sex. Quality is nice, but any drugs, any sex and any diamonds will do, because anything can be spun into something better. Prostitution, a saleswoman turned hooker suggests at one point, is a more honest kind of living than the jewelry trade (at least in this book). "With what I do now," she tells Bobby, "I sleep well at night."

Martin was born in Toronto, in 1967. Like his protagonist, he left high school, moved to Texas and got a job at the jewelry store where his brother worked. "I would say that, unfortunately, most of the book is lifted directly from my life—with some exaggeration and lots of omission," says Martin cheerfully. For a young man, the life had a kind of reckless glamour. "You sell a diamond, and boom," he says. But Martin was a little different from most employees. He read, for example. Just as Bobby riffs on a Jorge Luis Borges story to sell a bracelet, Martin wove stories for customers from the plotlines of books, and he'd read Spinoza's "Ethics"— between booze and bumps of coke. Bobby's pain, too, comes from Martin's life: his complicated relationships with his older brother and his charming but crazy father, Bill, who was never quite far enough out of the picture. "I think a lot of Clancy's interest in self-deception came from his interest in who his dad was," says his ex-wife, Alicia Martin. "It was difficult to know, especially in the later years, talking to Bill, what was real."

Martin tried to steer his life in another direction. He went to college, began graduate school in philosophy and married. Then, one day, when he was in Copenhagen working on a paper on Kierkegaard, his brother called and asked him to help with the business plan for expanding his jewelry store. Suddenly, Martin was out of school and back in jewels. Unlike the shop started by the brothers in the novel, the Martins' joint venture was clean, Darren insists. But the game, more or less, was the same: the process of turning a gem from a mass of matter into a narrative of possibility.

In the seven years Martin worked there, life was never boring, but it wasn't much of a life. "I had all this experience, and no sense of moral responsibility," Martin says. His marriage broke up. He despaired. But he began writing, and that seemed to offer the promise of something worthwhile. "I'd been doing all this cocaine," he says, "and I got to the office very early, 5 or 6:30 in the morning. At this time I was so close to killing myself, and every morning I made it part of my ritual: I'd get my gun and go into the bathroom and look in the mirror with the gun in my mouth, and finally I said, I can't do this anymore, and I went into the office and went to my computer and wrote this short story." He returned to graduate school. He wanted to understand deception—and self-deception—not practice it. Insofar as he could.

Martin remarried and became a professor. In addition to writing fiction, he translates Nietzsche and has edited several collections on ethics (including the forthcoming "Philosophy of Deception"); his nonfiction book "Love, Lies and Marriage" comes out next year. When we spoke two months ago, he said his life was now "incredibly calm and domestic." He did not say that he was undergoing one of the most trying periods of his life. Last week, Martin sent an e-mail that had the rush of confession. "I don't know if I mentioned that I did try, finally, to kill myself, about four months ago," he wrote. He said that he was now finally sober, and that the spring had been "an interesting road, learning 'rigorous honesty' and 'moral inventory' and all that." Being true to oneself, it turns out, is not something that can be learned entirely in the classroom, or through the therapy of writing a novel.

When we first spoke, Martin talked about Nietzsche's insistence on the necessity of being honest about self-deception. "We have to recognize that to flourish as human beings, we have to lie to ourselves," he said. "But we're not going to lie to ourselves about that. We deceive ourselves with open eyes."

With "How to Sell," Martin has written a gem of a story. Selling it probably won't be hard. The bigger challenge for Martin might be to learn how to stop selling.