- Ann Haley
With one voice, the critics have proclaimed Tom Rachman's debut novel, The Imperfectionists, a zinger. Christopher Buckley, in his cover piece in the New York Times Book Review (April 29, 2010) says it was "so good I had to read it twice simply to figure out how [he] pulled it off."
The book's story is essentially the 50-year history of an unnamed small English-language daily newspaper published in Rome. True to where the world of print journalism is headed, there is not a happy ending. The cast of characters --- the journalists, writers, publishers staffing the paper during its final days --- is paraded out in discreet chapters that could work as stand-alone short stories but that are neatly interwoven under often satiric banner headlines emblematic of each subject. (Obit writer Arthur Gopal's chapter heading is "World's Oldest Liar Dies at 126"). The portraits are sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, frequently very sad, often ironic and always tightly constructed with description and dialog that bring each character to life. The arc of the newspaper's life is chronicled in chapters separating the staff portraits, functioning as a common backdrop against which the journalists' individual stories are acted out. Each of the stories and, indeed, the overarching tracing of the newspaper's demise touches in some way on death, loss, or grieving for happier days. Each of the staffers' stories is told in the present tense, tellingly juxtaposed against the newspaper sections - - past tense, history.
The structure brings to mind Collum McCullough's Let the Great World Spin, where an interconnected cast of characters populates the world of the novel, and the sequential stories adding up to a cohesive whole, Elizabeth Stout's recent Pulitzer Prize winner Olive Kitteridge. The world of journalists' rivalries, scoops, and the trials of daily deadlines harkens back to old favorites: Spencer Tracy films, All the Presidents' Men, Annie Proux's The Shipping News. Rachman clearly was taking notes during his years editing for the International Herald Tribune.