Book review: The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

Published by the Dial Press, 272 pp, $29.95, hardcover

Given the number of frustrated novelists in journalism, you might think there would be more fiction about the profession. The lack isn’t because people in the field are intimidated by the brilliance of Evelyn Waugh’s 1938 novel Scoop, however. It’s because journalists can be a self-absorbed and mediocre lot.

That’s abundantly clear in Vancouver-raised writer Tom Rachman’s debut novel, The Imperfectionists, which details the countless disappointments of the staff of a nameless English-language international daily based in Rome. Readers can safely assume the paper is modelled on the Paris-based International Herald Tribune, where Rachman put in two tours of duty while writing his elegiac book.

Rachman is a very able writer, and his chapter-length portraits of the newspaper’s characters are painfully believable: retirement-age freelancer Lloyd Burko, who has lost all his connections, tolerates his partner’s affair with the man across the hall, and doesn’t really know what his son does for a living; pedantic but secretly kindly “corrections editor” Herman Cohen, chastising staff over spell-check indignities like “Sadism Hussein”; middle-aged reporter Hardy Benjamin, who ignores the fact that her 20-something would-be juggler boyfriend stole from her before they met.

Rachman describes one minor character as “a dandruff-raining, baseball-obsessed, sexually resentful Alabamian with a toilet-brush moustache and an inability to maintain eye contact”. You can reassemble these elements like the parts of a Mr. Potato Head to create a night-shift copy editor working “the rim” at any newspaper near you. The only character missing is the talented young reporter writing on the side about colleagues he somehow manages to view with a little affection.

The characters’ obsessing over the mundane events of their disappointing lives sometimes begins to drag, and the intricately structured narrative doesn’t have a lot of drive, but Rachman’s eye for telling detail in the retrenching world of newspapers is very acute. Above all, The Imperfectionists has a common-sense understanding of the enormous difference between what really matters to our hearts and all that news that’s fit to make it past the “rim pig”.