For a certain type, anway, what could be sexier than to work in Rome for an English language newspaper? To toil each day among the clack and hum of manual typewriters, smoke in the air, a bar on the east wall, the afternoon nap interrupted by the basement-level thud of a long roll of newsprint being slammed into the subterranean presses…it has a certain appeal, doesn’t it?
This is the starting point for Tom Rachmann’s debut novel, The Imperfectionists: an unnamed newspaper, its story told in eleven vignettes, each about a different employee or reader. But, thank God, this is not a book about the grand old days of international correspondence. Besides those snatches of the paper’s sepia and booze-tinted past, the novel takes place in 2007, when the paper dies.
Mr. Rachmann, who has written for the Roman AP bureau and edited for The International Herald Tribune, knows that there’s nothing sexy about print in the 21st century. So do the people who fill this book: they’re overworked, understaffed and apathetic. Most can’t even speak Italian. But though have no nostalgia for the “vibrating newsroom” of 1954, their lives are still dominated by the things they romanticize.
The novel opens with Lloyd Burko, Paris correspondent. Just past middle age, he’s broke, living on canned chickpeas. He begs his son, a foreign ministry flack, for a scoop, and fluffs a vague rumor of “a Gaza force” into fourteen hundred words, complete with fabricated quotes. Calling on the ministry after the story falls apart, he finds that his son never even worked there. Paris correspondent no more, Burko moves in with his equally broke scion, and they eat chickpeas happily ever after.
Mr. Rachmann’s sense of character is razor sharp, and he paints Burko swiftly, with a few details. The set-up is so perfectly grim that it is a disappointment when the story becomes overwhelmed by plot and fizzles into a pat ending. Perhaps it’s unfair to say that it reads like a news editor wrote it, but, like many of the vignettes, the last page is as tidy as the kicker on a small town human interest item.
The paper is shuttered at the end of the book, the once great (or at least good) daily dying when its last drops of glamour bleed out. But each chapter ends with its hero saving herself by abandoning romanticism, in twist endings that quickly become predictable. The only dashing figure is a pitch-perfect satire of the weathered globe-trotting correspondent, a blowhard named Snyder who says things like, “by the time I get there, Iraq might be a failed state, which would be wicked on my résumé.” Mr. Rachmann rejects nostalgia of all kinds—for lost love ones, for old friends, for life back in the States—and rejects romanticization of print most of all. The paper is an anachronism—still black and white, with no web site—a wretched old beast of burden probably better off sold to the glue factory.
Like a good front page feature, The Imperfectionists doesn’t let its occasional profundity get in the way of brisk storytelling. By the epilogue, which tells where everyone ends up after the unnoticed final issue, most of the characters have faded from memory. They are forgettable, not because they aren’t well drawn, but because Mr. Rachmann has resisted the urge to make them larger than life. His newspaper is staffed not by drunks who nap in fedoras, but by ordinary people who hate their job. They’re easy to relate to, but it’s funny that when they’re gone what persists in the mind is the sound of the typewriters, and the crash of newsprint as it slides into the press.