Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

I have just finished reading my second favorite novel that takes place in and around an English-speaking newspaper abroad. My favorite book of this sort is The Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson, a book that follows Paul Kemp to Puerto Rico to work for the newspaper in that tropical environment of the late 1950s.

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman is a novel (though I had to look at the cover after I'd read the first two chapters just to make sure) structured as short stories with characters that work for, or have some dealings with a newspaper based in Rome. In some chapters the characters overlap, in some they don't. When they do, it almost acts as a jump in a newspaper, where the story is picked up somewhere further along. Between each chapter is a short interlude in italics in which the back story of the paper and its founder, Cyrus Ott, is chronicled. These shorter sections begin in 1953 and take us to 2007.

The structure of the book is very intriguing for me. I once planned the same sort of book with stories and characters centered around a rural Tennessee church, to be titled Scenes in Colored Glass. Only one story, "Dominic," exists and it was written more than a decade ago. This book may prompt me to look back into that project.

I like this book. I like newspapers. The novel is a sort of love song to the industry, though Rachman doesn't pull any punches. He admits that newspaper readership and the very quality of content is in decline, but he can't seem to help himself.
My family is a newspaper family. My great-grandfather, great-uncle, grandfather and father all worked for the same paper, The Commercial Appeal. I was discouraged from it at an early age. My father hated working there and I heard nothing but ill about the business and the place day in and day out. As a result, I didn't go into the business. Not then, anyway. Had I been encouraged, I'm sure I would have, it would have only been natural. Even now, as a freelance writer, the work feels natural.

I've always had more of a romantic than realistic notion of newsrooms. I know my idea of what one is, or should be, is purely  based on movies and television shows, but that's fine. I like that vision. I can remember the "old building" that housed The Commercial Appeal when I was a kid and I'd go to work with my father. It was an old Ford factory and the third-floor newsroom had high ceilings with tracks and tubes suspended overhead, concrete floor, tall windows and was littered with paper and noise. That's where it all stems from, this idea of mine that a newsroom is a place where something is made. It was a factory!

It's not that way anymore. I was up on the third floor of The Commercial Appeal just last week. It's just not like it used to be ... I'll leave it at that for now.

I still like movies about newspapers, and novels. It's the romantic in me, the fallow strands of DNA in my makeup from the early part of last century when men and women were covered in ink, characters, news and cigarette ash. When you could get a beer at the lunch counter on the ground floor and nobody left until the day's paper was put to bed. And then it was with a toast and an eagerness for another day.

Some of this is captured in The Imperfectionists. It's good to have these stories, even if they are couched against the weakening backdrop of the industry. Rachman is a storyteller, a newspaperman and a chronicler of what the industry was and what it has become.