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The Man Who Thought He Was Dillinger : MAD DOG, By Jack Kelly (Atheneum: $19.95; 292 pp.)

March 08, 1992|John Schulian | Schulian is co-executive producer of NBC-TV's "Reasonable Doubts."

Though it hasn't been front-page news for nigh onto 60 years, Dillinger is a name that echoes through the national consciousness like a gunshot on a dark and lonely street. The FBI still trains its agents to shoot by offering them targets cut in the likeness of the bank robber who wore his surname more boldly than any Dillinger before or since. And there will probably always be talk that the Smithsonian houses a jar containing his most significant physical attribute other than his trigger finger.

John Dillinger robbed from the rich because it made no sense to rob from anybody else in the shank of the Depression. Very occasionally he gave to the poor, preferably those female and comely, and he killed only one man, which practically qualified him for sainthood compared to his running mate, the bloodthirsty Baby Face Nelson. Add all that up and you have the beguilingly star-crossed figure that Hollywood has brought back to life with everyone from Lawrence Tierney to Warren Oates to Mark Harmon. A hero? Hardly. But not a gangster either. Call him an outlaw.

"There's a difference between a gangster and an outlaw," explains the narrator of "Mad Dog," Jack Kelly's attempt to reinvent Dillinger in novel form. "A gangster is a politician's friend. He's tough, but he's an egg-sucker, too. An outlaw may be mean, but he's out there, he's willing to pay the full price. The gangster wants it for nothing. A gangster's a pimp."

That observation may not sit well with John Gotti or the legions of inner-city kids who madly hasten their own doom with drugs and drive-by shootings. But there is a mean, pinched quality to their lives, a coldness of heart that doesn't afflict the John Dillinger who has made off with Kelly's imagination. No, sir, Dillinger turns giddy and buoyant when he's about to knock over a bank. "He'd never tried to pretend that he was Douglas Fairbanks," Kelly writes. "That was never the reason he'd leapt over the tellers' cages that summer. It was just the lightness that came over him. He could not keep himself from leaping."

The narrator of "Mad Dog," on the other hand, is a dreamer who wanders the heartland's hick towns in search of something that will make him take off and fly. When we meet him, he is peddling the electronic equivalent of snake oil and trying to pick up a redhead who drinks pink gin. Suddenly he feels the cold steel of a revolver pressed against his neck. The cops think he's Dillinger.

His only crime, however, is looking like him, and that's really no crime at all. It's the impetus that the narrator needs to turn his dreary life around. Never mind that he does it by playing Dillinger in a one-ring circus run by Bat Masterson's second cousin. Never mind that even he realizes how inconsequential his masquerade is compared to the bank-jobs-and-bullets reality of Dillinger's existence. "I was connected to the world at last," he says. "Millions had seen my face. I was tied into something serious."

By creating a character who takes spiritual sustenance from his place on the fringe of fame, Kelly has tapped into a distinctly American trait. We are a nation that loves sisters who used to date big-league ballplayers, movies being shot on the next block, chance meetings on elevators with people who always get their picture in the paper. And how appropriate it is that Kelly never tells the reader the narrator's name. Anonymity becomes pretenders.

Kelly clearly is a talent, capable not only of writing edgy, compelling prose but of evoking an era when cigarettes were "nails" and hobos stared from passing trains. So one stays with "Mad Dog" in hopes of forgetting its insipid cover and finding the magic that will earn it a place on the outlaw fiction shelf next to E. L. Doctorow's "Billy Bathgate" and William Kennedy's "Legs." The reward for going the distance this time, alas, is ambivalence.

It isn't Dillinger who is Kelly's problem, though. He is dangerous when he uses a bank president as a human shield, tender when he realizes he must make room in his world for Billie Frechette, his half-Indian lover. He is noble when he refuses to abandon Billie during a shootout with the cops, triumphant when he goes home to Indiana after making off with both fortunes and the world's imagination. But he can't admit to killing anyone, nor can he outrun the fear that he is speeding down a dead-end street. And shouldn't every anti-hero be haunted as well as hunted?

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