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Fifty years and many changes have ensued since the paper was founded by an enigmatic millionaire, and now, amid the stained carpeting and dingy office furniture, the staff's personal dramas seem far more important than the daily headlines. Kathleen, the imperious editor in chief, is smarting from a betrayal in her open marriage; Arthur, the lazy obituary writer, is transformed by a personal tragedy; Abby, the embattled financial officer, discovers that her job cuts and her love life are intertwined in a most unexpected way. Out in the field, a veteran Paris freelancer goes to desperate lengths for his next byline, while the new Cairo stringer is mercilessly manipulated by an outrageous war correspondent with an outsize ego. And in the shadows is the isolated young publisher who pays more attention to his prized basset hound, Schopenhauer, than to the fate of his family's quirky newspaper.
As the era of print news gives way to the Internet age and this imperfect crew stumbles toward an uncertain future, the paper's rich history is revealed, including the surprising truth about its founder's intentions.
Spirited, moving, and highly original, The Imperfectionists will establish Tom Rachman as one of our most perceptive, assured literary talents.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page 25.
- Review Date: 2009-11-30
- Reviewer: Staff
In his zinger of a debut, Rachman deftly applies his experience as foreign correspondent and editor to chart the goings-on at a scrappy English-language newspaper in Rome. Chapters read like exquisite short stories, turning out the intersecting lives of the men and women who produce the paper—and one woman who reads it religiously, if belatedly. In the opening chapter, aging, dissolute Paris correspondent Lloyd Burko pressures his estranged son to leak information from the French Foreign Ministry, and in the process unearths startling family fare that won't sell a single edition. Obit writer Arthur Gopal, whose “overarching goal at the paper is indolence,” encounters personal tragedy and, with it, unexpected career ambition. Late in the book, as the paper buckles, recently laid-off copyeditor Dave Belling seduces the CFO who fired him. Throughout, the founding publisher's progeny stagger under a heritage they don't understand. As the ragtag staff faces down the implications of the paper's tilt into oblivion, there are more than enough sublime moments, unexpected turns and sheer inky wretchedness to warrant putting this on the shelf next to other great newspaper novels. (Apr.)
One newspaper’s twilight
With long-established newspapers passing from the scene and many others on life support, it’s the perfect time for a satiric look at the business. International journalist Tom Rachman supplies that and much more in The Imperfectionists, his sly novel-in-stories about the travails of the staff struggling to keep a small English-language paper afloat in Rome while wrestling with their messy personal lives.
Each of Rachman’s stories focuses on a different staffer, and from one to the next he deftly hits all the notes on the emotional scale. Comic highlights include “Bush Slumps to New Low in Polls,” in which Lloyd Burko, the aging and desperate Paris correspondent, fabricates a story about a shift in France’s policy in Gaza to save his job, and “The Sex Lives of Islamic Extremists,” starring Winston Cheung, a feckless one-time primatologist fighting a losing battle for the position of Cairo stringer.
Balancing these wry tales are stories like “World’s Oldest Liar Dies at 126,” sketching the painful transformation of obituary writer Arthur Gopal after the death of his eight-year-old daughter. In “U.S. General Optimistic on War,” editor-in-chief Kathleen Solson confronts the consequences of her husband’s infidelity, and in “Markets Crash Over Fears of China Slowdown,” hard-charging CFO Abbey Pinnola is forced to share an awkward transatlantic flight with a copydesk editor whose job she eliminated.
Interspersed with the novel’s 11 stories are flashbacks that trace the history of the paper from its creation by a wealthy Atlanta family through its brief flourishing and slow unraveling. When the founder’s grandson arrives in 2004, he’s more devoted to walking his basset hound, Schopenhauer, than he is to visiting the newsroom, where the staff drives corrections editor Herman Cohen to fits of sputtering rage by resorting to the acronym “GWOT” for “Global War on Terror” (entry No. 18,238 in the style guide he dubs, with ill-founded optimism, “The Bible”).
Perhaps the unnamed paper is deserving of the destiny that looms over it in these stories. But by the time its fate has become clear, it’s hard not to greet it with a touch of sympathy engendered by Rachman’s vivid tales.
Harvey Freedenberg writes from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.