On the cynical face of it, it is unsurprising that Tom Rachman’s debut novel, The Imperfectionists (The Dial, 288 pages, $15), has been a darling among the newspaper and magazine press over this past year: He is, of course, talking about them. As every on-air media obituary attests, the press’s navel runs perilously deep, and Rachman, a journalist himself in Australia, has a finely tuned ear for the needling tsetse buzz of a far-flung stringer, the inappropriate humming glee of a corrections editor or the horrible thud of a press ground to a halt.
The Imperfectionists is a series of interlinked stories about reporters, publishers, editors and readers of an international weekly in Rome, a sort of Winesburg, Ohio for the workaday media set. Really, it’s candy for anyone who’s ever been near a newsroom. But what might be a dismissive description isn’t. What Imperfectionists shares with Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, and with books by Evan S. Connell, especially, is an absolutely touching empathy for the failure at the heart of routine.
One of Rachman’s most enduring creations is the sometime-editor and corrections chief Herman Cohen, a hard-eyed veteran with a heart of gold who somehow narrowly escapes genre-procedural cliché even as he revels in the copy-desk folly that has “Tony Blair included on a list of ‘recently deceased Japanese dignitaries,’ Germany described as suffering a ‘genital malaise in the economy’ and almost daily appearances from the ‘Untied States.’” Despite his professional acumen, at home he is blind to faults and subjected to constant corrections from his wife, daughters and friends, but with no consequence: He is loved. It is wonderfully affirming, without ever succumbing to simple sop or sentiment.
Amid failure, even her own, the editor-in-chief Kathleen also emerges as heroic—not for accomplishments but for a consistently broadened humanity. The Imperfectionists represents, more than anything, the transcendent middlebrow. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge is equally this, Bruce Springsteen is, everything by Jane Austen is, and, heck, The Shawshank Redemption (the movie) is perhaps the ridiculous apotheosis of the form. While the highbrow might call form or assumption into question, and the lowbrow merely (often winningly) distract with movement, the transcendent middlebrow affirms everything you already believe so strongly, so convincingly and burstingly, that you’re left staring dumb, sentimental and gape-mouthed at the impossible bruising richness of whatever you first thought life was supposed to be. Rachman here has made something exactly as pretty, though maybe also as fleeting.
GO: Tom Rachman reads from The Imperfectionists at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-0540. 7:30 pm Friday, Jan. 21. Free.