'I wrote an inventory of my moral failings." That's how Canadian Clancy Martin describes his first book How To Sell: A Novel, an autobiographical work about his shady dealings in the Texas jewellery business.
Evidently his was a very extensive inventory, which included selling counterfeits and lying to customers. But it's one that's resonating with literary celebrity fans such as Zadie Smith, Jonathan Franzen and Gary Shteyngart (the latter called the 42-year-old writer the "bastard child of John Updike and Mordecai Richler").
Since it was published last month, How To Sell: A Novel has also attracted attention in Hollywood: Brad Pitt's Plan B has expressed interest in movie rights, and Ryan Murphy, the creator of Nip/Tuck, is writing his own TV adaptation.
Of course, none of this is what you'd expect from a nice boy from Calgary, who is now a philosophy professor in Missouri as well as a literary up-and-comer. But then Martin's life has as many plot twists as an airport blockbuster.
Although raised in a middle-class family (his dad was in real estate), Martin had a rebellious streak and was expelled from high school for pot use at 16. He left home for Dallas, where he worked at the Fort Worth Gold and Silver Exchange. He didn't get his diploma, but high SAT scores landed him a spot at Stetson University in Florida to study philosophy.
From there it all seemed clear: Martin kept studying philosophy, right through to embarking on a PhD on a prestigious fellowship at the University of Copenhagen - but then his brother phoned and offered him the chance to get back to the jewellery business in Texas, this time with a luxury retailer with stores in Dallas and Forth Worth.
The opportunity to earn more than an academic's salary was so tempting that Martin put philosophy on hold. "At the time, I was 26 and my wife was pregnant," he says in an interview, "and I was worried about money."
What he observed in the jewellery business, though, was more worrisome: His novel vividly describes shady dealings - counterfeiting, fake contracts and wire fraud - and the lifestyle of drugs, gambling and prostitutes that went along with it.
Martin's own balance was equally fragile. He spiralled into substance abuse, and depression. He kept a Glock handgun fully loaded at his office and would put the pistol into his mouth every day.
"I still remember the oily taste of that gun," he says. "I wanted to kill myself, but I just couldn't make myself do it."
This horrific ritual went on for months - until Martin started writing. Documenting his hellish descent was "hugely cathartic," he says, and helped release some of the "strange tension that's inside of me." It also gave him the kick he needed to get out of the jewellery business and back to philosophy.
Perhaps his Canadian roots helped too. In How To Sell: A Novel, the narrator's assimilation into the United States dovetails with his failing morality; his touchstone is his girlfriend back home. "Coming from quite a sheltered life in Canada," Martin explains, "I wanted to explore what we give up to become a success and what aspect of ourselves we sell to make it."
In the end, Martin left the jewellery business with only a few thousand more than when he began. But he then finished his PhD, and today, he's a philosophy professor at the University of Missouri - and works on ethical questions, often close to home, such as what constitutes a lie.
The bigger irony? Selling out and spiralling down in Texas might be his ultimate salvation: His publisher has signed onto a second book about the jewellery business.
"I'm a little late publishing my first novel. But in my early years, I was very busy trying to make it as a businessman," says Martin. Then, pausing, he adds: "Unfortunately, a very corrupt one."Report Typo/Error
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