Belle Starr, I am reliably informed by my Columbia Encyclopedia, was born Myra Belle Shirley in 1848. Her father operated a tavern in Carthage, Mo., until Belle was about 16, when the family moved to Dallas. There Belle met notorious outlaw Cole Younger and had a child by him. Not long after, she fell in with Jesse James and his gang.

In 1880, Belle married an Indian named Starr and went to live in Oklahoma, where her home became a refuge for outlaws. She sunctioned as a "fixer" with legal authorities until she was shot dead by a person or persons unknown in 1889.

In "Belle Starr," the novel, Speer Morgan fixes on Belle's last months. Old and ugly,Belle lives a life of almost unrelieved pain. She has migraines and toothaches and cramps. Her son is a punk who's married a whore and shot a government official, and unless Belle can save him, he'll swing from a rope.

Her daughter is a floozie who left her bordello only because Belle crawled underneath the building with a can of kerosene and burned it down. True, her dentist, an Indian named Blue Duck who is fascinated by his patient, turns out to have talents surpassing his calling, but he is so haunted by his own ghosts that he isn't much of a comfort for Belle in her old age.

One last challenge remains for Belle. The "boomers"-settlers Iured to Oklahoma by offers of free acreage-are threatening to displace the Indians from their already dwindling lands. The chief of the Cherokees hires Belle as an agent provocateur . With Blue Duck and a band of ragged outlaws, Belle sets out across Oklahoma to poison wells, burn railroad bridges and rob banks, spurred on by the Cherokee's promise to save her son.

"Belle Starr" is an interesting novel on many levels. Speer, who is co-director of the creative writing program at the University of Missouri, does a fine job of evoking the West before it was tamed, of aking a page of history alive and immediate (his analysis of the political underpinnings of the Westward expansion is particularly satisfying). His portraits of characters distant from our time and experience are often achingly haunting. And his attempt to place himself inside Belle Starr's mind is sometimes very successful, especially when Belle grapples with her ambivalence toward her children and the pain they cause her.

To fault the novel because it seems at times pretentious and overwritten may be to do it a disservice. That judgment is a matter of temperament and taste. Place me in front row center at the theater, and the only tension I experience is when I'm afraid an actor is going to blow a line. What fascination I derive comes from watching how it is done-the gestures, the movements, the deliver, the makeup.

So, too, with "Belle Starr." The novel has the quality of a tour deforce. Can Speer bring it off? Can he sustain it? Can he make me believe this is how Belle Starr really thought? Why, by gosh, right back there, he just did. How extraordinary!

But perhaps that is not Speer's intent. "This novel," announces the flap copy, "arises from a sophisticated artist's obsession with a primitive-but not simple-woman, and form a sensitive modern man's understanding of women in male roles, confronting men and leading them but torn by raging inner conflicts." On the latter, I'm not so sure, not having urn across many women confronters and leaders with much in the way of raging inner conflicts. But so far as artistic obsession goes, Speer has made an impressive attempt. Devotees of well-crafted, ambitious, creative novels should find in "Belle Starr" much to enthrall and excite them.