Books: Tea-leaf and silver spoon

THE BLUE SUIT by Richard Rayner, Picador pounds 9.99
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The Independent Culture
SHOPLIFTING is a mundane crime. About two billion pounds worth of goods were stolen last year, the British Retail Consortium estimates, in five million separate acts of theft. Richard Rayner raided book shops in the 1970s when he was an undergraduate at Cambridge and carried on thieving when he moved on to the fringes of literary journalism in London. He also stole from and lied to his friends, forged cheques and broke into three houses, including the home of a girl friend of his sister. He now feels the need to tell us about it all at some length.

Men confessing to their dark desires is meant to be a new and important genre. The Blue Suit, claim its publishers, is "an inspired act of retrieval" which touches "truths many of us would rather not acknowledge". Rayner, however, merely recounts his past. Like guests on the Oprah Winfrey Show, he displays self-absorption rather than self-knowledge, expects a voyeuristic tingle of shock from the audience and then waits for the applause. What he writes may be true - although his capacity to offer verbatim transcripts of 18-year-old conversations raises doubts. But there are no insights, in part because he shows no interest in confronting the rest of the world.

The book starts and ends with the 1992 riots in Los Angles, where Rayner now lives. What a gift for a middle-aged writer examining his own youthful descent into crime! He could have talked to rioters and victims and made imaginative connections between his past and their present. Alas, the inclination and the courage to generalise seem to elude him. Rayner retrieves; he does not research.

No motives for his petty offences are offered. "I drifted out of crime under no more conscious impulse than I drifted in," he says. This is not quite right. His autobiography does hint at how he would like to be understood. When he went to Cambridge, he describes how he made rich friends and saw how the good life was lived in Chelsea. But although he seems to picture himself as a man who stole to keep up with a fast crowd, the reader cannot regard the public schoolboy as a 1970s Jude the Obscure when his mother lives with his step-father in a Yorkshire manor house.

Social inadequacy rather than the English class system seems to have disturbed him. Rayner had difficulty getting girlfriends and worried about appearing bland and characterless. He began stealing books from Heffer's in Cambridge not because he wanted to read them, but because a stylish undergraduate saw his room and said: "How very bizarre. You must be the only person in Cambridge without his shelves stuffed."

Particulary disquieting is Rayner's decision to tell the story of an aristocratic woman he calls Chrissie, who, perhaps understandably, refused his repeated requests to get into bed with him. Rayner describes in great detail the exploits of her heroin-addicted husband, who is now dead. Chrissie is presented as beautiful and cool at first, but she turns out to be no better than Rayner when she tries and fails to defraud a bank.

Looking back, he writes about the couple: "Whatever was going on, it became clear that I wasn't a Hamlet, or a cavaliere servente, rushing up to help save her like a knight. I was only a bit player for a scene or two." There is self-pity here and some score-settling too.

The same pattern can be seen in his treatment of his father. Rayner senior was a philanderer, charmer and convicted fraud. Throughout his youth, the author pretended that his father was dead while wondering, in private, whether he had inherited his criminal streak. They only became close when his father really was dying, in 1991. But this was not a standard reconciliation. Rayner tells how he cold-bloodedly pumped his father for the facts of his colourful life without telling him how he was going to use them. His father said nothing after he had read what his son had written, but he was "in no doubt that a job had been done". He died shortly afterwards and Rayner says he feared that "I'd killed him with my book."

But if he has qualms, he does not write about them. He cannot because they would subvert his work by making the reader wonder whether it was not little more than the high-brow equivalent of kiss-and-tell journalism.

If all this sounds harsh, it is because Rayner is a talented writer. The Blue Suit reads easily (five hours max, including coffee breaks) and there are a few genuinely powerful scenes. He has now published three books about himself, and that's more than enough. He could be good, if only he could find another subject.