The Blue Suit by Richard Rayner

Houghton Mifflin Company 1995 316 pp. 19.95

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


Richard Rayner is a liar and a thief. Richard Rayner is an artist. Give him a chance and he'll quote Donne, from the expensive edition he's just stolen from the bookshop down the street.

In his latest book, The Blue Suit, the forty-year-old Rayner chronicles his coming of age in Britain from the vantage point of his current home, Los Angeles. In a nervous, telegraphic style, Rayner dictates a coolly objective account of his childhood, the onset of his crippling migraines, his days at Cambridge, and his growing collection of over eight thousand books, dotted with valuable, and stolen, first editions. Perhaps the most interested group of readers of this account would be the bookshop owners all over London who would no doubt appreciate Rayner using some of the profits from this book to make some belated payments.

Rayner's family photograph can be found if you look up "dysfunctional" in a dictionary. He has two strong memories of his mother. One is her iron hissing as she completed her chores. The other is of whisky-infused, three a.m. swordplay, with Richard managing to get his butcher knife to Mom's neck first. You see, Mom had failed to pick Richard up at the train station on a wintry night. The discovery that he's a bastard, conceived in a Rover motor car during a one-night reconciliation between his divorced parents, merits a paragraph.

Rayner spends his elementary school years in a harsh, demented boarding school that could have been dreamed up by Edward Dahlberg. When his father is imprisoned for embezzlement, the teenaged Rayner finds himself briefly with his mother and new stepfather in Yorkshire, then once again shuttled off to boarding school. When confronted by classmates with newspaper accounts of his father's criminality, Rayner invents a new father for himself, distant and dashing in South America.

At fourteen, Rayner steals his first book, the act recounted here as if it's his first starring role in the school play. By high school he is breaking into houses of the local gentry, nipping out as the police siren nears, later bewildered at odd loot he had randomly collected.

Never a simple book lover, Rayner is a bibliomaniac who, when he isn't stealing, drowns himself in weeks of isolated book reading. Having read Wuthering Heights eighteen times as a teenager, he later discovers it on the A-level syllabus and assumes it must be a mistake, that there's another book with the same title.

At Cambridge, Rayner rubs tweed elbows with the wealthy and bemoans his inability to attract women. After graduation, he moves to London where he manages to go into humiliating, Dostoyevskian debt while reviewing books for fifteen dollars a pop for obscure journals. His bill at Cambridge goes unpaid, and they threaten to revoke his degree, yet he holds on to most of the loot from his break-ins (hiding most of it at Mom's house), confusing himself and his reader as to his motive.

Through one of his rich friends he meets Chrissie, a sexy, dissolute woman for whom he has a moth-to-flame attraction. He discovers her noble rank only when he comes across her checkbook while rummaging through her purse for something to steal. Although Chrissie refuses to sleep with him, she does introduce him to her gamble-holic, heroin-addicted husband, Michael, and they retire to provinces for a cheerful idyll of check-kiting to support Michael's habit.

The psychiatrist in us all will have a delightful time with this book. Were the burglaries and book thefts a form of compensation for lost love? Why, when released after his first arrest, did he return to steal a book from the

shop that had arrested him hours earlier? What does he really feel as an adult when, having used the substance of his father's checkered life as the source for an ill-disguised novel, he realizes that publishing it may have killed his father? Rayner himself offers us no clues, only the occasional hint of his emotional reaction to a theft.

Rayner may be called a British Jean Genet, but the pettiness of his compulsive law breaking suggests there is no Sartre waiting in the wings to tart up his story with metaphysical resonance. Like last year's A Father's Story, by Jeffrey Dahmer's dad, Lionel, this book provides a tantalizing peek not into the criminal mind, but at how people, men especially, can wall off their lives, separating action from any sort of psychological affect. Rayner tells his story, but leaves it up to us to interpret it. We have to assume he's told us the truth. But then again, Richard Rayner is a liar. And an artist.