A Pitch-Perfect Look At An Imperfect Newsroom: Jill Shtulman on The Imperfectionist by Tom Rachman

The Imperfectionist, Tom Rachman, The Dial Press, 2010

The Imperfectionists is so darn good that it’s hard to believe it’s Tom Rachman’s freshman effort. With fascinating, wry and intelligent characters, masterful writing, and a timely theme, it easily stands as one of the finest debut novels I’ve read lately.

Each chapter stands on its own – think In Other Rooms, Other Wonders or perhaps Then We Came To An End– but when woven together, the chapters create a “big picture” of hapless individuals who collide with each other while wrestling with their own imperfect selves.

Within these pages, you’ll meet maddening, lovable, and decidedly flawed executives, reporters, copy editors and stringers who form the staff of a dying English-language international newspaper situated in Rome. There’s not a false note to be sounded. Tom Rachman actually inhabits each character, gently breathing life into him or her. As a former foreign correspondent for the Associated Press stationed in Rome, he clearly knows his territory; one suspects he has encountered these types of characters throughout his career.

There’s the aging Paris correspondent Lloyd Burko, an anachronism of a reporter, who still relies on faxes instead of emails and is willing to sell his very soul for another front-page byline and an influx of money. And he very nearly does; he pressures his estranged son who works for the French Foreign Ministry to “give him something, anything”…and what he gets is not what he expects.

In one of the more poignant stories, there’s obituary writer Arthur Gopal, son of a famous journalist, who will do just about anything to slack off until he unexpectedly encounters a heart-breaking personal tragedy and with it, a burning desire to excel once more.

There’s Abby, aka Accounts Payable, a lonely executive who finds herself unexpectedly seated next to Dave Belling, the lone copy editor she recently fired, on an international trip to Atlanta. Throughout the long flight, the two of them connect at a most personal level and upon landing, Dave is able to extract his revenge in a most humiliating manner.

And in one of the most enjoyable, laugh-out-loud vignettes, there’s Winston, a naïve Cairo stringer, who doesn’t have a clue as to how to sniff out and develop a story. He is manipulated big time by his competitor for the position – Snyder, a middle-aged egotist who coerces him into giving up his laptop, his hotel room, and indeed, his potential of a job with the paper.

These are just a few of the characters that inhabit these pages; others are the workaholic editor Kathleen; Herman, the copy editor who has assembled an 18,000+ entry corrections guide he calls “The Bible”; an obsessed reader who is a decade behind on her reading of the paper and determined to catch up; the introverted, dog-obsessed unlikely publisher and his magnificent basset hound, Schopenhauer – eleven wondrous characters in all.

Each of these characters is perfectly realized and as authentic as life itself; you can almost feel the grimaces and the sweat, the anxieties and the desperation, the personal tragedies and triumphs. The Imperfectionists is not only a window into the lives of those who make up a newspaper, it is also a reflection of current times, when news has become entertainment and Web sites have replaced printed pages.

Interwoven into these vignettes is the story of the history of the newspaper – its impulsive founding, its legacy standing for sons and grandsons of the Ott family, and its dwindling ability to survive in a world that rushes to the immediate gratification of online sources.

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