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review: fiction

Tom Rachman's immensely readable first book, The Imperfectionists, is about a failing English-language newspaper in Rome. The unnamed paper was founded in 1954 by an American industrialist named Cyrus Ott, who furnished the newsroom with "a custom-built horseshoe table for the copy editors, shiny black phones for the reporters, thirty-eight Underwood typewriters imported from New York City, thick crystal ashtrays, and thick white carpeting, with a discreet cocktail bar in the east wall."

Rachman's novel-in-stories takes place in 2007, long after the cocktail bar was removed. The problems that have beset the newspaper industry in general - an aging readership, shrinking ad revenues, the problematic Internet - have brought this international paper, once a launching pad for hotshot American journos, to the brink of being shut down.

A former editor at the International Herald Tribune, Rachman takes on a valedictory air as he acutely and lovingly describes the types of people found at this vanishing workplace. Among them, there's Lloyd Burko, the Paris-based freelance correspondent at the end of his career; Herman Cohen, the hyper-fastidious corrections editor; Kathleen Solson, the imperious and temperamental editor-in-chief.

Setting aside a chapter apiece for each "imperfectionist" (who make cameo appearances in other stories), Rachman establishes for each character an underlying contradiction between his or her job and his or her private life.

Herman, for instance, breathes fire on reporters for using trendy acronyms like GWOT ("Nominally, it stands for Global War on Terror … the term should be understood as marketing gibberish") and confusing "that" and "which," but when it comes to his lifelong friend Jimmy, whom Cohen idealizes as a bon vivant and thwarted genius, his normally unerring eye for detail and falsity meets its blind spot.

Hardy Benjamin, a love-starved business writer, sees the world in terms of transactions and exchanges: "My feeling is that, at heart, every story is a business story." Still, she overlooks the one-sided deal she's getting from a mooching, inattentive boyfriend.

Arthur Gopal sleepwalks through his work day as an obituary writer, leaving early to attend to his true passion, his family. But after the sudden death of his daughter, he's forced to reconfigure his priorities.

Rachman leaves little doubt that he's writing what he knows well. His novel is sprinkled with hard-won observations such as that " 'news' is often a polite way of saying 'editor's whim' " and "[j]urnalism is a bunch of dorks pretending to be alpha males." And yet even someone whose familiarity with newsrooms doesn't extend beyond the work of Clark Kent and Peter Parker will recognize these characters.

The omnibus structure used by Rachman, who was born in London and raised in Vancouver, naturally invites quibbling. One is bound to pick favourite newspeople or attempt to uncrack the underlying formula the author uses. Personally, this reader preferred the bittersweet chapters to the more baldly comic ones, like the admittedly not-unfunny section in which aspiring Middle East correspondent Winston Cheung is professionally manhandled by Rich Snyder, an obnoxious, older journalist who speaks and writes in a ludicrous faux-surfer dialect: "That bombing was sweet, now let's kick ass on the Northern Alliance."

Between these chapters are italicized passages to fill us in on the paper's five-decade history. In these brief vignettes, Rachman displays a knack for telling details and economical storytelling worthy of Ernest Hemingway, a former newsman who used interchapters in his own story collection In Our Time.

If forced to find fault with The Imperfectionists, one might point out Rachman's occasional tendency toward cuteness, of bow-tying every loose end in gilded ribbon, of fighting too hard against imperfection. When one character, for instance, stumbles onto a stash of unsent letters confirming another character's unspoken love for a long-time associate, the line between emotional manipulation and artful heart-wrenching is momentarily crossed.

That said, this book is filled with gorgeous writing, jolts of insight and narrative surprises that feel both unexpected and inevitable. One finishes reading The Imperfectionists with the sense that Rachman not only knows his way around a newsroom, but is also well acquainted with storytelling masters such as Anton Chekhov and William Trevor. Rachman makes a near-flawless debut.

Kevin Chong is a Vancouver-based author of a forthcoming book on horse-racing.