EATING CROW

By Jay Rayner

Simon & Schuster. 290 pp. $23

Every critic knows that it's a thousand times more fun to write a bad review than a good one. The good review is a sermon on the virtues of something -- the shining planes of light glinting from Los Angeles's new Walt Disney Concert Hall, the sonorous prose of an Annie Dillard essay or sanctimonious drivel about the perfectly cooked scallop with its attending dollop of whatever.

A bad review, on the other hand, is a delicious treat, both to write and to read. It's a legally sanctioned way to say all the awful things you've ever thought about anybody. That some shining Frank Gehry masterpiece can look like an offensively polished pot in a giant's pretentious kitchen; quote Annie Dillard long enough -- you don't even have to say anything bad about her -- and your reader starts to giggle. And as for food -- since the art and science of food is arbitrary to begin with, all the critic has to do is not like the meal or come in the restaurant with an upset stomach and a bad mood, and there go years of work, creation, striving. Last year a chef killed himself amid rumors that the Michelin guide would take away one of his stars. Critics being who they are, you can bet there were more than a few malicious grins behind the crocodile tears being shed at the time.

Jay Rayner, the author of the novel "Eating Crow," is, in one of his other lives, one of those restaurant critics who revel in the cheap shot -- although, to be fair, he likes a lot of stuff, too. But his pen is sharp enough for one restaurant owner to have called him a "flatulent oaf," and it's from this kind of characterization that he models his resentful, confused and beleaguered hero, Marc Basset.

Basset, a mean-spirited London critic running on empty, writes one awful review too many, and a chef crawls into one of his ovens and roasts himself to death. Basset's editor is, of course, delighted: His position is that newspapers should be making the news, not reporting it. But Marc feels awful and -- not knowing what else to do -- apologizes to the chef's widow. He experiences an epiphany (in Alcoholics Anonymous terms, he's ascended into 12-Step Heaven) and roams around from then on apologizing to everyone he's hurt in his life.

He apologizes to a chubby girl he talked trash about. And to his little brother (who plainly thinks he's gone nuts). He apologizes to a couple he's betrayed. In fact, a lot of these sins he's sorry for have to do with adolescent sex. (He certainly doesn't go around apologizing to restaurant owners.) Soon he dumps his decent girlfriend, turning her in for a better one, and goes to work for the United Nations as a professional apologizer.

Marc is more than qualified for this position because on his mother's side of the family there is hardly a national crime his English ancestors haven't had a hand in: "Take your pick," he says: "slavery, colonialism, the Opium Wars, Cromwell's campaign in Ireland, the Rwandan genocide, support of apartheid -- ." His father was Swiss, a harmless-seeming fellow, but neutrality involves various sins of omission as well. So Marc gets set up with bodyguards and a beautiful assistant with whom he strikes up a romance, and begins a wild tour around the world, appearing onstage, for instance, in front of a huge crowd with U2 and Bono -- who, we all must remember, has spent a huge amount of his own time and money in various attempts to save the world.

But the world is unregenerate, the author suggests. It doesn't want to be saved. Even though Marc has one of the prettiest, sweetest, most intelligent girlfriends in the world, he can't resist flopping into bed with two bimbos from the Midwest. And during a very important round-robin apology that goes on too long, he can't resist looking at his watch. Because by now it's become so boring! And he's beginning to realize that, as my mother used to say, "Sorry doesn't do it!"

Basset is forced to turn freelance. Fired from the U.N., he finds himself bewilderedly playing by another set of rules, where your best friend can betray you, take great pleasure in doing it and never even think about apologizing.

"Eating Crow" rests on one idea, charmingly framed: that injustice can't ever be rectified, that snippy criticism is probably justified, that a mean spirit may serve as well as any other spirit. All that may be true. But the book -- meant, obviously, to be entertaining -- became harder and harder to read as plot and character receded and the author's idee fixe took over. To put it another way: Two stars.