True confessions by a Cambridge alum whose success in literature and love belies a youth of forged checks and stolen first editions. Burdened from the start with a complicated family life, novelist Rayner (The Elephant, 1991, etc.) stopped telling the truth about himself back in boarding school. His fathera con artist who faked his own death and then surfaced years later in jailbecame a victim of cancer in one version, a hospitalized invalid in another. Matriculation at Cambridge, with its secure and ancient cloisters, felt like coming home for Raynerat last an identity to throw around his shoulders. At Emmanuel College, fascinated by new friends, Rayner continued to let his own story fall away and, having not paid his university fees, found himself hundreds of pounds in debt and in danger of losing his degree. His habit of pinching books escalated into systematic check-kiting, with the occasional burglary. Graduated and trying to be a writer in London, the pattern of fast friends and ballooning debt continued. Then, suddenly, ``for no reason life conspired to be nice,'' and Rayner went straight overnight, striking a balance in work and love, even finding a publisher. But in writing a novel based on his own relationship with his now-ailing father, he found himself systematically and coldly stealing the details of his father's life. His father's death precipitated a reckoning with all the buried deceit of the past, a confessional narrative that reads a lot like a novel, with a seductively rakish and endearingly naive hero. But this is not a cautionary tale: Our hero sees his private demons. Rayner teeters on the edge of disaster for so long, the tension begins to ebb, and then there is no comeuppance at alljust an increasingly self-indulgent spectacle. Fictional characters can be indulged, but real penance should be private.