Pay no attention to the poet behind that mask

A case of literary fraud leads a young editor to the edge of fame - and madness.

In book after book, Peter Carey has proven that he's incapable of writing a dull page. He's a literary Robin Hood, stealing from rich moments of history or literature and giving to poor readers. The brazenness of his recent projects makes their success all the more exciting. In "Jack Maggs" (1998), he dared to finish off Dickens's "Great Expectations." In "True History of the Kelly Gang" (2001), he mythologized Australia's greatest robber.

Reading his new work, "My Life As a Fake," about a celebrated case of fraud after World War II, is like falling into an Escher drawing. With stories nested in stories, narrators narrating the narratives of other narrators - it all sounds like the kind of poststructural challenge A.S. Byatt would twist into a migraine of complexity, but Carey never forgets that it's about entertaining a reader. As the Booker Prize has noted - twice - he's one of the greatest storytellers alive, the perfect qualification for this novel all about storytelling.

Miss Sarah Wode- Douglass introduces herself as the editor of a London poetry magazine who has long hated a popular poet named John Slater. "He was an appallingly unapologetic narcissist," she writes, who played a suspicious role in her mother's suicide decades earlier when Sarah was a child. Determined to end her confirmed chilliness toward him, Slater proposes she accompany him to Malaysia, the country that inspired his first collection of poetry. The 10-day trip, all expenses paid, will give them a chance to talk. "We must talk," he insists. "It is very bad that we never have."

She gives in to his plea, but he sleeps through the entire flight, and as soon as they arrive in Malaysia, he flits off to pursue his own interests. Angry with him and bored of editing in her room, one afternoon she wanders outside the hotel and spots a grotesque Australian named Chubb, "a strange and fragile creature, powerless, pathetic, filled with pride and self-importance." He wants her to read a decaying page of verse by Bob McCorkle, but she already knows the story of that notorious hoax.

Just after the war, Chubb destroyed another young poetry editor by submitting a collection of cobbled-together verse. He invented "Bob McCorkle," an unschooled genius, now deceased, and a sister who sent in the poems along with a manufactured photo and a description of her brother's simple life. The editor fell for it just as Chubb hoped he would, but the prank quickly spun out of control, becoming the subject of a scandal and then an obscenity trial, which inspired the humiliated editor to kill himself.

Of course, the incident ended Chubb's own writing career, and Sarah can't imagine why he should approach her now to replay that ghastly farce. "Chubb had preyed on the best, most vulnerable quality an editor has to offer," she seethes. "I mean that hopeful, optimistic part which has you reading garbage for half your life just so you might find, one day before you die, a great and unknown talent."

But before she can send Chubb packing, she reads the grimy page of verse he offers. "I approached these 20 lines with both suspicion and hostility," she admits, but "my heart was beating very fast indeed. Rereading the fragment, I felt that excitement in my blood which is the only thing an editor should ever trust." She's hooked, despite herself.

Determined to see more of the McCorkle manuscript, she promises to write a profile about Chubb, while he bribes her into listening to his life story by promising more poems. "I loathe dishonesty," he begins dishonestly, claiming he invented that notorious prank only to teach a snobby young editor a lesson: that he was too infatuated with shallow literary trends, that he couldn't spot the truth of great literature.

"If what I did sounds cruel it will only be to people with no appreciation of art," Chubb insists. But the editor's death was only the first of many unintended tragedies. At the absurd obscenity trial that followed publication of the fraudulent poems, a madman named Bob McCorkle rose up from the gallery and denounced the prosecution.

From that moment, Chubb's life became a deadly struggle with this monster he brought forth. "How do I know from where?" Chubb sighs. "From hell, I suppose. I imagined someone and he came into being." Once the humiliated editor was dead, McCorkle hounded Chubb, reciting "his" poetry, demanding a birth certificate, and insisting on a childhood to fill out his existence. When Chubb couldn't comply, McCorkle kidnapped his baby and fled into the jungle of Indonesia, setting in motion a 15-year chase, a deadly cycle of revenge, and a volley of allusions to Mary Shelley, Joseph Conrad, and Franz Kafka.

Of course, Sarah sees this ancient mariner's tale as a pathetic fiction of self-justification, but it's so captivating - to her and us. And the physical fact of McCorkle's breathtaking poetry along with other details that Carey wickedly taunts us with make it impossible to determine where Chubb's testimony crosses into psychosis. The difficulty of untangling this web of mysteries is compounded when Sarah finally talks with Slater about her mother's suicide and realizes that she's fictionalized significant portions of her own past as well.

In typical Carey style, all this races along in a dazzling narrative that binds us to Sarah's plight, swinging between certainty and doubt, tearing through the tissue that separates what we know from what is true. One can't help running through this labyrinth of deceit in a kind of panic, searching for the end, hoping it won't come.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to Ron Charles.

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