Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Imperfectionists a must-read for newspaperfolk ... and regular folk, too

Is it possible to go from a career in journalism to literary greatness?

The answer is a definitive yes - a revelation I discovered upon reading Tom Rachman's debut novel, "The Imperfectionists." (2010, 272 pages, Dial Press, $25).

I thoroughly enjoyed every witticism and nuance in this novel that could also be viewed as a collection of stories. Each chapter chronicles one of the cast of characters - from stringer to editor, CFO to most devoted reader - at an international newspaper based in Rome.

Rachman, a London-born and Vancouver-raised former Associated Press journalist just two years my junior, earned a master's in journalism from Columbia. Beginning in 1998, he was an editor on the AP's foreign desk in New York. According to his website, Rachman then worked as a reporter in India and Sri Lanka, and later was sent to Rome as an AP correspondent, with "assignments taking him to Japan, South Korea, Turkey and Egypt." From 2006 on, he worked part-time as an editor at the International Herald Tribune in Paris while writing fiction.

All of those newsy experiences provided good fodder for "The Imperfectionists."

How else could he know the deep dark secrets of the newsroom? I laughed out loud reading a passage about a copy editor who goes ballistic after her chair goes missing - the one working chair in the place. You see, I write this from my forever broken chair at The Mercury. I pride myself on the fact that it's one of the least broken in the room. Those who have better seats have been known to mark their territory (chairs, staplers, etc.) with tape that bears his or her name to guard against pilferage.

Rachman's novel follows the unnamed Italian-based, American-owned, English-language newspaper through good times and bad while telling the stories of those who love and love to hate the institution. I completely agree with The New York Times Book Review's assessment of the novel as "both love letter to and epitaph for the newspaper world."

Writes NYT reviewer Christopher Buckley in an April 30, 2010 review, "I still haven’t answered that question, nor do I know how someone so young — Rachman turns out to be 35, though he looks even younger in his author photo — could have acquired such a precocious grasp of human foibles. The novel is alternately hilarious and heart-wrenching, and it’s assembled like a Rubik’s Cube. I almost feel sorry for Rachman, because a debut of this order sets the bar so high."

A "precocious grasp of human foibles," indeed. His cast of characters is so real to me - someone who's been in the reporting and editing business for 12 years.

Like the book's title, the characters are mostly tasked with pointing out what's wrong with a piece. But the title could also make reference to the flawed folks themselves.

There's Herman Cohen, the paper's harsh-tongued corrections editor who delights in making staffers squirm by publicly posting their mistakes. The same man, at home, is a docile little puppy, doting on his wife and children. I think we may have one of those around here ...

There's an aging stringer, Lloyd Burko, married four times and at the end of his financial rope, who fakes a story for the first time in his career. It seems so easy to fabricate quotes, sources, facts and background. But things don't work out quite as he expected.

And there's a just-out-of-college stringer, Winston Cheung, who finds himself completely over his head while trying out for a position in Cairo. He's outsmarted by a likable yet scrupulous veteran war reporter out for the same gig.

A favorite chapter of mine concerned the paper's CFO, Abbey Pinnola, who is charged with making cuts in the newsroom. On a flight back to U.S. headquarters for a meeting, she finds herself seated next to someone she's recently let go. She's convinced the man isn't aware that she was his one-woman firing squad. A comedy of errors ensues.

In that chapter, as in many of them, there's a twist at the end in the style of O'Henry. Something that genuinely surprises you and may even shock you. Rachman keeps his readers interested!

Each installment begins with a headline that cleverly sums up part of the story therein, and ends with an italicized bit o' history about the Ott clan, who founded the storied paper in the 1950s.

But the newspaper, like all print products these days (I see no irony in the fact that I'm writing this in a blog) is dying a slow death - readership is down and the digital age is taking over. The paper's leadership refuses to launch a website.

The final chapter is just that for the unnamed publication. But it won't be for Rachman, who's at work on his second novel in London.

That's one follow-up story I'll be sure not to miss.

1 comment:

Danmark said...

I enjoyed the two seemingly disparate stories told in this book. Through one story we learn about the history of an Italian-based newspaper written for an audience of English speakers, from its inception onward. Interspersed are chapters focusing on one employee of the newspaper as told from their viewpoint. Each character lives a sad life bounded by an invisible cage they created and cannot escape. The character sketches are somewhat depressing but show these people with all their scabs. The two story lines intersect in the end to bring the reader to the present. The ending is fitting for the book, sad but realistic.