I'LL NEVER BE LONG GONE

A Novel

By Thomas Christopher Greene

Morrow. 288 pp. $24.95

The plot of Thomas Christopher Greene's culinary novel, I'll Never Be Long Gone, looks rich: A hard-driving man blows his head off with a shotgun just as his restaurant in Eden, Vt., is attracting raves from critics as far away as New York. Before his two sons can recover from that shock, his will delivers another one: The older boy, Charlie, gets the house, 40 acres and the restaurant -- a half-million-dollar jackpot; the younger boy, Owen, gets $10,000 and encouragement to leave town. Simmer over low heat for 17 years. Owen returns home from a hard life at sea. Charlie has married Owen's old girlfriend, and the restaurant has prospered. They welcome Owen with open arms, but he's still hesitant, bitter and hunky -- and Charlie's wife is bored. Beat vigorously.

It's a great recipe: two cups of Cain and Abel, a pound of prodigal son, half a stick of East of Eden and a pinch of All My Sons. But sometimes no matter how good the ingredients, the soup's too thin. The problem is Greene's unwillingness to invest these characters with any psychological depth. Some novels make you think of the movie that could be made; this story makes you think of the novel that could be written. We're told that Charlie and Owen "were raised like twins, inseparable, with a bond that ran deeper than others could understand," even though their father constantly made them compete for his affection. We're told that their mother never wanted to move to Vermont, and she flees as soon as her husband is dead. We're told that after the reading of the will, Owen rode the high seas, avoiding commitment of any kind. But these complex situations have been left on the stove too long; all the nuance has been boiled away.

Perhaps that's because Greene can't decide if he's serving carpaccio de boeuf or Twinkies. The narrative switches between passages of pretentious biblical allusion ("the truth was that while he could return to Eden, on some vital level Eden could never return to him") to moments dredged from under the bridges of Madison County: "He made love to them in ways he knew they wanted to be made love to and he did so not out of some great sense of selflessness or passion for the particular woman, but rather because he understood what it was they ached for and he knew that there were few things in this life that came easily to him and this was one of them."

You'd expect that an author who can whip up gravy like this would at least have some fun in the kitchen. Anyone who's read Joanne Harris's Chocolat or Diana Abu-Jaber's Crescent can still taste those delicious scenes, but Greene's descriptions of food preparation -- the only subject that receives any sustained examination in his book -- are disappointingly technical, more concerned with dicing, braising and seasoning than the erotic fun of it all.

It's galling that some authors, such as, say, Anita Shreve, must constantly defend themselves from the pejorative "romance" label no matter how well they write, while romantic fluff like this can pass itself off as "literary fiction." It's the same in the kitchen, of course: Women just cook, but men are chefs.

Check, please. *

Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.