The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

I picked up this book for the simple reason that I missed Europe. The book, which could more accurately be described as a series of short stories, follows an English language newspaper in Rome from when it was founded  in the 50s to its present dying days. (Death of the newspaper? Another point of interest.) Each chapter is told from the perspective of a new character: member of the editorial or business staff, editor, publisher or life-long reader. The extinguished old reporter, Lloyd Burko, who still faxes in his copy, scorns email and has children scattered around Europe, a testament to his early glory days as a Hemingway-esque reported, is the first story to appear in the book. In thinly veiled allusion to the papers ultimate, inevitable demise, he is the first to be cut from the paper. There’s the type-A, workaholic editor, Kathleen, the newly fired member of the editorial board who ends up on the same plane, in the seat next to “Accounts Payable,” the woman responsible for firing him, and there’s Arthur Gupal, complacent head of obituaries, who discovers a firey passion for reporting only after experiencing his own unimaginable personal tragedy.

The one character that runs through the thread of the narrative is the newspaper. It’s demise is inevitable, though we can’t help but hope that this cast of…well… imperfect characters will get it together long enough to save it. We discover gradually, in blips interspersed throughout the programing-as-usual character profiles, how the newspaper was born. Slowly a picture forms of a less-than-professional beginning, hardly enough to justify setting up a rescue party. Everyone’s talk of the ideals on which the paper was founded falls mute. It’s simply not true. It’s much more human than that. It’s imperfect.

What is Rachman saying about journalism as a whole? Was it all just one big experiment of the 1900s? Does it now lack the ideals, grounded in professionalism, to preserve it? The good news, says Rachman, is that newspaper people are resilient. Imperfect, flawed, quirky, and idealistic, but not one of his characters suffers irredemiably as a result of the paper’s closure, well, except for S… Some, in fact, are even better off.

All in all, this was an unputtdownable. Not just for people interested in the history of journalism. Rachman is in perfect control of the narrative, finishing almost every vignette with an unexpected – sometimes playful, sometimes heartbreaking – twist. Lest you should find this device gimmicky, consider, then, his astuteness in describing us hapless humans, and the failures and disappointments that sometimes shape our bizarre behavior.

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