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.