ALMOST TEN YEARS AGO I am sure I looked like a lot Volunteers on their way home from Peace Corps service in Central America: unshaven, scraggly pants nearly falling off, too many necklaces and bracelets for a normal citizen, and three huge duffel bags filled with trinkets from being abroad for over two years. So I was not all that surprised when I was singled out of line and forced to open all my bags for a Customs agent. What did surprise me was that as I finally zipped up the last of my searched bags and started towards my connecting flight, I got no more than twenty yards before I was stopped again by a different agent, who, even though he had seen me get searched earlier, still insisted that I go through the whole routine again. When I protested that it had just been done, he took his time probably hoping that I would miss my flight. Thanks to a flight delay I did not miss that connection but the flight home would have been a perfect time to read Martha Egans first novel, Clearing Customs.
The story begins with the main character, Beverly Parmentier, being singled out and harassed by Customs agents while coming home from a vacation in Mexico. The agents continue their invasion of her privacy for over a year and almost on a daily basis. Beverly is one of the most likable characters you will find in a novel. Self-described as short, fusby, and forty two, she is a returned Peace Corps Volunteer from Colombia who served in the late 1960s. She still carries that periods idealism with her, so she starts a small struggling import store of Latin America folk art in the Old Town section of Albuquerque, New Mexico. She sees the store as her personal foreign aid program between hardworking Latin America artisan families and her customers. Her quirky characteristics and modesty make you root for her from the very opening pages.
The goliaths in the story are the tax-supported thugs known as Customs agents who have declared a subversive war on small importers like Beverly. The novel takes place in the late 1980s when President Reagan has just passed the Cultural Patrimony Initiative, which allows the government to hassle importers about national treasures such as pre-Colombian art. Due to her innocence, Beverly is confused about why she is caught in the crossfire of the aptly named Operation Pillage. She first notices her phones being tapped, strange people following her, and even witnesses harassment of her friends and colleagues. We follow Beverly on her trips to get away from it all. The agents, however, are persistent and secretly follow Beverly on a weeklong rafting trip with her friends down the Yampa River, on a visit to her hometown on Michigans Upper Peninsula to attend a family funeral, and even on her solitary vacation to St. Barts.
The author, Martha Egan, is also a small importer who has had her problems with Customs over the years. Egan appears to have revenge in mind by writing the book, but the vengeance seems to have skewed the character descriptions for half the people in the novel. Almost all the Customs agents are one-dimensional characters that seem to all have buzz cuts, muscular features, and are just not very bright. The one agent that receives lengthy descriptions is the main nemesis and leader of Operation Pillage. He, however, is described as ugly with little pig eyes, having an explosive temper, being rude to all women while also sexually confused, and even has ties to Nazism. The hapless Customs agents are painted with such negativity that it even provokes the reader to feel sorry for them. These descriptions were more glaring since they were juxtaposed with Beverly and her friends and colleagues who all seemed like wonderful down-to-earth idealists who love life.
While the bad guys may not have a lot of character description, Egan does a wonderful job describing certain places. Descriptions of the changing color of a New Mexican sky, or of wildlife behavior on the river, and even of the detailed colors and trappings of a typical Mexican restaurant illustrate the settings and bring the story to life so that you can see yourself in the narrative. I imagine her attention to detail comes from writing two acclaimed books about Latin America decorative art, Milagros: Votive Offerings from the Americas (Museum of New Mexico Press, 1991), and Relicarios: Devotional Miniatures from the Americas (Museum of New Mexico Press, 1993).
While a less conventional plot and more subtlety between the characters may have helped, the novel contains suspense and the feeling of pulling for the underdog. For those who think that government officials have distorted their commitment to the larger public good, Egan provides ample ammunition for such reasoning. I recommend the book to all, but do not recommend bringing it with you on international flights where you may be stopped by Customs agents!
Brian Kane was a Small Business Volunteer in Honduras from 1994- 96. He is the Assistant Director for Admissions at The New School and has just received an M.S. in Nonprofit Management from the New Schools Robert J. Milano Graduate School of Management and Urban Policy.