The caverns of Jesse James's mind

THE CHIVALRY OF CRIME By Desmond Barry Little, Brown 480 pp., $24.95

The Wild West is not romantic here. It is complex and mean - an intriguing, pulsating world of grays. In 1892, a bespectacled boy in Colorado wants to be the next Jesse James. Not only because it appeals to the archetypal rebel in him. He wants revenge. His mother and siblings are dead, and his grieving father offers no solace. He believes this is all God's doing.

Joshua Beynon concludes that his comfort can be found only by breaking moral laws; he has heard that God is "wounded by every sin of man." The famed, dead outlaw Jesse James becomes his role model.

When a used Colt .45 Peacemaker revolver comes up for sale at the local dry goods store and James's slayer, Bob Ford, returns to town, tragic turns are set in motion.

This is an engaging portion of the novel, but by far the richest segment of the book is the middle 250 pages when Bob Ford regales Joshua with tales of the James gang. This seems to be where first-time Welsh-born novelist Desmond Barry's passion lies, when he mixes fact and fiction to get inside the mind of one of the most romanticized criminals of the old West.

Jesse James begins life rather innocently as the son of a minister, a Missouri farming lad tired of ploughing and harvest, and yearning to join the War Between the States. His older brother was a rider with a Confederate bushwhacker. When the war intrudes on James's idyllic life, his innocence is rubbed out. The rush of war and the execution of crimes "both revolted and excited him."

The story, though, is about more than James's downward spiral into the animal-like behavior that war produces in him. It's about politics in the post-Civil War world, the ethics of the press, the conflicting emotions that draw a man into crime, and the United States' transformation from a country with room for Manifest Destiny to one demanding cooperation among people as elbow room shrinks.

Barry has produced a gritty, thoughtful page-turner.

*Katherine Dillin is on the Monitor staff.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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