The Imperfectionists
nolead ends nolead begins Tom Rachman

Dial Press. 288 pp. $25

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Reviewed by Steven Rea


No wonder Tom Rachman's The Imperfectionists has been garnering raves since its publication a few weeks ago. The novel, deftly written and sharply observed, is set in newspaperdom, and since most of the book's reviewers are writers and journos themselves, there's an inevitable, and agreeable, sense of recognition to be had from these pages.

The zealous corrections editor, the bitter copy editor with her specified chair (always misplaced), the freelancers and far-flung stringers, the frenzied rush to deadline, the appreciative nod to a nicely turned headline, the cynics, the grumps, the jerks, the egos, the anxiety - Rachman, a former Associated Press reporter based in Rome, a former International Herald Tribune editor in Paris, has it all down, concisely, cinematically, with impressive humor and grace.

But even if you've never set foot in a newsroom, The Imperfectionists proves a delight. Situated in Rome, with stopovers in Paris and Cairo, the novel consists of interconnected portraits of staffers at an English-language daily: expats who have found a home in Italy's teeming capital, who have landed at this struggling enterprise, working on obits and business stories (or not working - there's a dogged procrastinator), and who have, respectively, come alone, brought lovers or spouses, found lovers or spouses, had affairs, wrecked their careers, resurrected their careers, and so forth.

In short, all the professional and personal tumult of a busy workplace. This one just happens to be bathed in the romantic dusklight of a media relic, bowing under the weight of the Internet, but bravely (or foolishly) pushing ahead, writing the good stories, fighting the good fights, and then when the deadline's met, there's a brilliant garden bar near the Tiber to take an aperitivo, or a bustling trattoria for a late-night plate of pasta, a bottle of wine.

Henry James couldn't have savored it any better.

Each chapter of Rachman's debut introduces a character - Lloyd Burko, a four-times-married, down-on-his-luck old-school correspondent; Kathleen Solson, the paper's fierce editor-in-chief; Craig Menzies, her right-hand man and the envy of the newsroom for the much-younger photographer girlfriend he shacks up with; and so on.

Intercut with these perfectly crafted pieces - each of which could stand alone as a short story, but resonates in the jostling company of characters we've already come to know - are flashbacks to how the paper was founded, back in the 1950s, by one Cyrus Ott, an Atlanta millionaire. And how his son Boyd, and grandson, Oliver, handled, or mishandled, the legacy.

And Rachman's prose? Here's one succinct paragraph, in which Ruby Zaga, a lonely copy editor (and stalker), returns to her mess of an apartment late after a day's and night's work:

"She changes into her Fordham sweatshirt, opens the refrigerator, and yawns into its white light. She cracks a Heineken and drinks it before the open fridge, her mind emptying with the can. The sharp corners of her day go smooth."

Here's Rachman's first paragraph about Winston Cheung, a comically green would-be stringer, trying to find his bearings in the Middle East:

"He lies under the ceiling fan, wondering how to start. Every day in Cairo, news events take place. But where? At what time? He connects his laptop and reads the local press online but remains bewildered. These news conferences - how does one get in? And where does one obtain official statements? He wanders around his neighborhood, Zamalek, vaguely hoping a bomb might explode - not too close, of course, but within safe note-taking distance. He'd make front page of the paper, get his first byline."

The motley cast of The Imperfectionists is to a man, and woman, flawed, restless. There are strivers and self-doubters, lovers and losers, the savvy and the sad. One comes away liking some more than others, and maybe seriously disliking a few. But The Imperfectionists, well, it's impossible not to like - this is masterful stuff.

Steven Rea is an Inquirer movie critic. Contact him at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/