THE IMPERFECTIONISTS, by Tom Rachman. Dial Press, 272 pp., $25.
The print newspaper may be an endangered species, but the newsroom - with its deadlines, quirky characters and investigative crusades - still makes for a good story.
Think of the great newspaper movies, from "Citizen Kane" to "All the President's Men," not to mention the final season of "The Wire" on HBO. Newspaper novels are rarer; Evelyn Waugh's satire "Scoop," about an incompetent foreign correspondent in Africa, stands out.
Journalist Tom Rachman makes a contribution to the genre with his charming, if uneven, debut novel, "The Imperfectionists." The dramatis personae are the staff of a fictional English-language paper in Rome, never named. Rachman himself was an editor at the Paris-based International Herald Tribune from 2006 to 2008.
"The Imperfectionists" is really a series of linked stories; each chapter treats a different staffer, and many characters reappear throughout the book. Between chapters are short interludes tracing the paper's history, from its founding in the 1950s by a wealthy American businessman through the lean years of the 21st century, when cable television and the Internet are driving down circulation.
Among the principal players are Kathleen Solson, the workaholic editor in chief who ambivalently meets an old boyfriend ("she's of the newspapering temperament, and he's no longer front page"); Herman Cohen, the eagle-eyed corrections editor ("Credibility!" is his byword) who can't see his own personal life clearly; and Lloyd Burko, the aging Paris correspondent who struggles to remain relevant ("He needs money; he needs a story"). We even meet the paper's most loyal reader, Ornella de Monterecchi, a Roman widow who reads each edition religiously, if belatedly: She's only now learning about the Rwandan massacres and South African elections of 1994.
Though many of the stories have a melancholy cast, the most successful ones are in a comic vein. In "The Sex Lives of Islamic Extremists," we follow hapless novice Winston Cheung to Cairo, where he is being auditioned as a stringer. There, a wily foreign correspondent named Rich Snyder - his competition - smoothly insinuates himself into Winston's life, crashing at his apartment, borrowing his laptop and enlisting him for research, without once dropping his laid-back surfer-dude persona. "Good reporting and good behavior are mutually exclusive," concludes a friend of Winston's.
Anyone who's worked in a dysfunctional office will recognize (or identify with) Ruby Zaga, the constitutionally embittered copy editor of "Kooks With Nukes." A 19-year veteran of the copy desk who started as an unpaid summer intern and somehow never moved on, she ambles through each day at once dreading and hoping for her dismissal; her muttered imprecations (most are unprintable in her newspaper, and this one) punctuate the chapter. She's both funny and moving.
Rachman's stories can feel too neatly schematic, and he's overly fond of an O. Henry-style twist at the end of many chapters. But his affection for the profession and its dogged, damaged practitioners is genuine. I'm hoping that rag of his survives.