An English-language newspaper headquartered in Rome brings together a strongly imagined cast of characters in journalist Rachman’s first novel.
Lloyd Burko used to be a stringer living in Paris. He’s still in Paris, but now he’s just an impoverished former journalist who pretends to have a computer and whose latest wife has moved in with the guy across the hall. Arthur Gopal is languishing as an obituary writer until a death in his own life enables his advancement by erasing his humanity. Hardy Benjamin is a business writer, savvy and knowledgeable about corporate finance but utterly hapless in romance. What they have in common is the never-named paper, whose history is doled out in brief chapters beginning in 1953. The novel’s rich representation of expatriate existence surely benefits from the author’s experiences as an AP correspondent in Rome and an editor at the International Herald Tribune in Paris; his thoroughly unglamorous depictions of newsroom cubicles and editorial offices will resonate with anyone who’s had a corporate job. But, while the newspaper is its unifying factor, the narrative’s heart beats with the people who work there. Rachman’s ability to create a diverse group of fully formed individuals is remarkable. Characters range from a kid just out of college who learns the hard way that he doesn’t want to be a reporter, to an Italian diplomat’s widow. Some are instantly sympathetic, others hard to like. Each is vivid and compelling in his or her own way. The individual stories work well independently, even better as the author skillfully weaves them together. Cameo appearances become significant when informed by everything the reader already knows about a character who flits in and out of another’s story. The novel isn’t perfect. The interpolated chapters about the paper’s past aren’t very interesting; the final entry ends with a ghastly shock; and the postscript is too cute. Nevertheless, it’s a very strong debut.
Funny, humane and artful.