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Home / Articles / Arts / Theater & Stage Reviews /  Short of Clarity

Short of Clarity

January 19, 2005, 12:00 am
By
Clearing Customs is fiction stranger than truth.


There are as many reasons for writing as there are books written. Some authors exorcise personal demons. Others dream of celebrity, but Martha Egan's first novel is all about joyfully sticking it to "the man."

In Clearing Customs, Egan outlines the struggles one small importer faces in dealing with customs ***image1***officers ("the man") as the Reagan administration amps up the war on drugs. Written to "make something positive and entertaining out of a grossly unjust experience," Clearing Customs culls events from Egan's personal saga as proprietor of a retail store dealing in Latin American folk art while being stalked, questioned, photographed and intimidated by the government.

The book's strength lies in capturing the distinctly Northern New Mexico qualities in Egan's fictional alter-ego, Beverly, a river-running, wise-cracking liberal with a penchant for panchos. This smart, frumpy heroine is particularly refreshing and the descriptive passages maintain a strong, articulate Southwestern flavor throughout a harrowing encounter with Big Brother.

However, there is a rub, summed up by Mark Twain: "Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn't." Egan's decision to portay her true story as a work of fiction has the unfortunate effect of minimizing her experience. Events which, in a work of non-fiction, would have raised eyebrows and produced an enjoyable incredulity instead simply ring contrived and trite.

As Egan struggles to cast her story in the pallor of make believe, she often over-explains points that don't flow within the fiction but are crucial to her experience. Bearing the brunt of narrative responsibilty, her characters become caricatures. As ***image2***a result it's difficult to identify with any of the personalities and her penchant for one-page biographies over gradual character development doesn't help. Egan's novel is ripe with levity, but heavy on cliché, causing her farcical situations too often to fall flat.

Finally, Clearing Customs illustrates the problems that third-person omniscient narratives can present. While allowing freedom for the author to navigate a complex cast of characters and events, it can easily deteriorate into clutter, as is the case here. What begins as a focused story surrounding Beverly unravels towards the finish, loose ends struggling to come together and shorter and shorter chapters jumping from character to character. And then, poof, it's over…

The potential for great relevance in today's border-fixated, security-crazy climate is never quite realized and, devoid of a climax, the book ends in an abrupt fade to black.

 

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