But there is an even bigger KfC reading talisman — novels about journalism. My first real job in 1969 was as a summer reporter at The Calgary Herald; 26 years later I walked out of the Herald as its departing publisher. The last 30 years of the 20th century were, in North America at least, an amazing time for journalists and I was proud to be part of it. And I will also admit I am very glad that I am not a part of the struggles that newspapers are facing now.
So when I read two falling-off-the-wall, upbeat, complimentary reviews of Tom Rachman’s first novel, The Imperfectionists, in the NY Times (see them here and here), I will admit that the book was ordered immediately and moved to the top of the reading pile. Journalists are protective of their turf and often resent fictional descriptions of it — but when they are well done, that grumpiness means we love them even more. And while Breslin or a couple of others might have been around long enough to allow description, a “kid’s” view (that would be anyone under 50) would not be appropriate, unless it was truly exceptional. The Imperfectionists has now been read and — ta da — it is every bit as good as those NY Times reviews said it would be. While I won’t be revealing any of my “newspaper” favorite novels until the comment discussion opens (okay, Scoop is one), this novel will be on the list, I assure you.
In the early 1950s, Cyrus Ott is a rich American wandering around Rome without a purpose. He decides to found an international, English-language newspaper based there. While that may sound like a strange economic decision, he is also buying, almost like ju-jubes or some other candy, art work by Leger, Modigliani and Turner, so this “newspaper” is just another trifle where his considerable fortune can be put to use.
A trifle for Ott, but not for the people who work there. The current time of The Imperfectionists is more than a half century later — 2007 to be precise. The paper (it is never given a title in the novel) continues to publish, although not thrive. Its early circulation, stuck at about 15,000 a couple of decades ago, “soared” to 25,000 and now is back to about 10,000 — the paper is draining money every day, kept alive by Ott’s hapless survivors (who are blowing most of his fortune anyway — beware the third generation) in his memory. It is home to a beehive of interesting characters.
The Imperfectionists is being marketed as a novel and I have no objection with that. What it really is, at least for me, is 11 character sketches of individuals whose shared experience happens to be their relationship to “the paper”, headquartered in a building on the Corso Vittorie Emanualle II in Rome. If you have been to Rome, you know about that address — if you haven’t, rest assured you will see it on your first visit. And if you stay there long enough and are a perceptive observer, you will see some of these characters. The ex-pat who finds a way to survive in Rome is one of the sub-themes that Rachman is most effective at developing. He lives there and did work for The International Herald Tribune so he knows whereof he speaks.
I am not going to try to give you a portrait of all 11 but would like to provide a few quotes to illustrate a couple, if only to interest you in the other nine. Rachman introduces each of his chapters with a headline from the paper. Under the heading of “Global Warming Good For Ice Creams”, here are some observations about Herman Cohen, Corrections Editor of the paper:
* GWOT: No one knows what this means, above all those who use the term. Nominally, it stands for Global War on Terror. But since conflict against an abstraction is, to be polite, tough to execute, the term should be understood as marketing gibberish. Our reporters adore this sort of humbug; it is the copy editor’s job to exclude it. See also: OBL; Acronyms; and Nitwits.
He hits save. It is entry No. 18,238. “The Bible” — his name for the paper’s style guide — was once printed and bound, with a copy planted on every desk across the newsroom. Now it exists solely within the paper’s computer network, not least because the text has grown to approximately the size of metropolitan Liechtenstein. The purpose of the Bible is to set down laws: to impart whether a “ceasefire” is, properly speaking, a “cease-fire” or indeed a “cease fire”; to adjudge when editors must use “that” and when “which”; to resolve quarrels over prepositions, false possessives, dangling modifiers — on the copydesk, fisticuffs have broken out over less.
If you ever worked at a daily newspaper prior to, say, 1990, you would know a version of Herman Cohen (the version at the one that I ran — “Gus” — was rigorously insistent that no one could talk to him when he arrived at work until he removed his street shoes and put on the rabbit-fur-lined slippers that were his work attire). These guys had been there forever, been through most jobs (Herman has been “acting” editor-in-chief three times in his career) and they knew more about corporate history than any of the legitimate files could ever reveal. They did not just have a copy of Strunk and White or Fowler on their desk, they had all of the last five editions and could tell you just where changes had been made in each, usually to their dismay. A young reporter going over to their lair to consult on an apostrophe would be risking an hour of direction.
(ASIDE: My personal favorite: “To the manner (manor) born.” I knew enough that “manner” was correct but headed over anyway. After more than 30 minutes discussion with two of these creatures — and reference to numerous works — it was agreed that both versions are correct, but a reporter has to know when to use each. E.g. Prince Charles is “to the manner” born because of the way he leans on his birth to justify his shortcomings. Diana, Princess of Wales, is “to the manor born” because of the way that she exploits her birth in her upward surge, moving on to bigger castles.)
Consider the editor’s relationship with Herman:
She often stops by for advice. Her deputy may be Craig Menzies, but Herman is her true counselor. He has worked at the paper for more than thirty years, has held most editorial jobs here (though never reporter), and served as the acting editor-in-chief during interregnums in 1994, 2000 and 2004. Staffers still shiver to recall his stewardship, Yet for all his bluster Herman is not disliked. His news judgment is envied, his memory is an unfailing resource, and his kindness emerges for all those who hang around long enough.
Then there is Ruby Zaga, a copy editor “who is sure that the entire staff is plotting against her, and is correct.” Here’s the opening of Ruby’s chapter — since she is a copy editor who writes headlines, it is titled with one of her better ones, “Kooks With Nukes” (for those visitors who don’t know about headline writing that is a one column, three deck — i.e. you need to have three words, none of which are longer than about eight letters).
The jerks tooks her chair again, the chair she fought for six months to get. It’s amazing. Just amazing, these people. She hunts around the newsroom, curses bubbling inside her, bursting out now and then. “Pricks”, she mutters. She should just quit. Hand in her resignation. Never set foot in this place again. Leave these idiots in the dirt.
Here are a few more of the characters and the headlines for their respective chapter: Paris Correspondent Lloyd Burko (“Bush Slumps To New Low In Polls”); obituary writer Arthur Gopal (“World’s Oldest Liar Dies At 126”); business reporter Hardy Benjamin (“Europeans Are Lazy, Study Says”); chief financial officer Abbey Pinnola, universally known as Accounts Payable to the staff (“Markets Crash Over Fears Of China Slowdown”) and reader Ornella de Monterecchi (“Cold War Over, Hot War Begins”).
My fascination with Rachman’s exceptional portrayal of detail is getting in the way of my description of the volume itself (although it is the detail that truly makes the book). The novel may be a collection of character sketches but at the end of each one the author goes to the back story for a page or two and gives us some history of “the paper”. It is a highly effective device for knitting together the present and the past — and very unusual for a first novelist to be able to carry off.
I loved this book and I am pretty sure anyone who has ever worked in the “news” business — or is a spouse of those of us who have — will have the same response. Does that make it a great novel? I’m not sure. But it is certainly good enough to join a canon (which we will talk about in the comments) of books about journalism. And finally, if you have never worked in the news writing business but wonder about it, this is as good (well, funny) a fictional portrayal of what was happening there in the last few decades as any I have read. And, not to be overlooked, it is set in Rome and Rachman obviously knows that exceptional city very well.