four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
42-Sept-Oct-2009
user_rating: 
0

A-HowToSellThe Story: When we first meet Bobby Clark, an incorrigible 16-year-old, in 1987, he has just stolen and pawned his mother's wedding ring, has been expelled from school, and has been rejected by his girlfriend and schizophrenic father. With few choices, Bobby leaves Calgary and joins his older brother Jim, a salesman in a jewelry superstore in Texas. As he experiments with coke and meth and starts an affair with Jim's girlfriend, Bobby, with no clear moral compass, is lured into the scams, bogus deals, and demented deceptions of the industry-from hawking old Rolexes as new to selling diamonds with fake papers. Guided by two age-old passions-love and money-Bobby, who never quite strikes it rich, experiences yet another warped permutation of the American dream.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 294 pages. $24. ISBN: 978-0374173357

Kansas City Star 4 of 5 Stars
"Though its package appears to be pop bildungsroman, Martin's novel pushes past narrative convention to create an unforgettable exploration of the dark underbelly of the American dream. ... [L]ike F. Scott Fitzgerald's greatest work, [it] exposes the bankruptcy of the American dream." Zac Gall

New York Magazine 4 of 5 Stars
"The fun, flash, and fakery of Martin's story are all on the surface, expertly hooking the most casual browser. But underneath it's a timely capitalist satire (wide-eyed Canadian Bobby Clark's unsentimental education in the dastardly business of American consumer culture) that stealthily creeps toward heartbreak." Boris Kachka

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"The central narrative is engaging, a straightforward coming-of-age story. ... [R]eading Faulkner, I'm struck with the exhilarating awareness that immense questions are working themselves out right before my eyes; reading Martin, it's all too evident that commonplaces, worked out already and elsewhere, are being drafted in, or soldered on, to lend philosophical gravitas to what is, at base, a quite straight-up, noirish moral potboiler." Tom McCarthy

O, the Oprah Magazine 4 of 5 Stars
"This is one of those books that make you slap your forehead and marvel at the intricate lies that ensnare the unwary, even as you check to make sure your wallet and your wits are right where you left them." Cathleen Medwick

Village Voice 4 of 5 Stars
"Martin's short, direct sentences sometimes evoke Raymond Carver or Amy Hempel, but How to Sell is lurid compared to anything by either writer." Zach Baron

Salon 3.5 of 5 Stars
"How to Sell is like a James Ellroy novel for people (like Bobby, improbably enough) who read Spinoza's Ethics . ... The stakes would feel higher if Bobby had started out with an inner compass, but his capacity for self-deceit seems well in place before he arrives in Texas." Laura Miller

Critical Summary

How to Sell, a teardown of the jewelry industry and a reflection on deception, is "a lesson in double dealing-in business and in romance," said O. Certainly, the novel contains amoral-though surprisingly insightful-characters on uncertain paths to a vaguely defined "success." The New York Times Book Review asked whether, for all its hype, the novel would become "an inevitable classic." The writing, the philosophical inquiries, and the compelling coming-of-age tale, whose scams resonate in this day, are top-notch. "All in all, it's a winning combination," concluded the reviewer-if not, perhaps, the Great American Novel. But just as The Great Gatsby reflected the corrupted ideals of the Jazz Age, How to Sell may come to represent the early 21st-century American dream-and how we continue to sell each other and our souls for a tiny, unsatisfying glimpse of it.