"Drat that camel! He was chewing the walls again, and I figured the veranda would break. I sent out Archie to scare him off, but you know how colored boys can be with a camel. He was next to useless for camel scaring."

Sally Blackburn, the young narrator who starts off "Darin Bill" with these sentences, probably dratted camels out of a provincial conviction that they had no place in Galveston, where she was born and raised, treated to a homespun education and married off in undue time -- for she was only 15 -- to Doctor Ovenshine. Ovenshine's name and occupation were borrowed, ones. In fact he had stumbled into the first of his misadventures by stealing pennies (those were pre-inflation days) fiercely assaulting the employer who discovered his crime and running away under the assumption that his employer was dead.

Many of the characters in "Darlin' Bill" distrust their fellow men and invite distrust because they are not what they pretend to be. Ovenshine conducts an academy, teaches a few scraps of geography and history and thereby uses up almost everything he knows. He is at his rare but exuberant best when he describes the Peloponnesian War and Xerxes and his 200 wives. When the profits from his academy threaten to reduce him to rags, Ovenshine trades it for a horse and wagon and sets off for Indian territory.

Jerome Charyn is a sophisticated writer who seems frequently to be parodying mellerdrama (but with more style and cunning) in the fashion of the TV show "How the West Was Won." Twists and turns of character, however, are as important to Charyn as intricacies of plot. And he shows Ovenshine, an unfaithful and bullying husband, in a swiftpassing but heroic light as he stands up for abused Choctaws and the young blacks adopted into their tribe. A New Yorker be begin with, he would probably be written off today as a Northeast liberal. Nevertheless, he succeeds in one stroke in persuading Sally that dime novels are libelous in depicting Indians as "red buzzards" who measured success neither in wampum or blankets collected but in scalps.

The confessions Sally pours out, sometimes with glee ad pride, sometimes with rue, by no means affirm the sacredness of the family. She detests Ovenshine before she becomes his bride, and after, practices birth control without his knowledge, and pays him back for "gallivanting" by plunging into a series of affairs that she excuses on the grounds that she takes each one seriously and will never, never descend to prostitution. Defoe's Moll Flanders would have been enlightened. She might have been envious, too, of the business sense that rescues Sally from a diet of turnips and makes her the thriving manager of Abilene's first 100-room hotel. With her preternaturally sharp eye for the main chance, Moll would have shaken her head over the sad thought that Sally nursed birds, animals and men who weren't thriving.

Among the men Sally nurses and eventually mourns, for he dies in a Deadwood saloon when he is shot in the back, is the incomparable Wild Bill Hickok. There were secret places in Hickok's life, especially before he became marshal of Abilene, that gave biographers and novelists wide room for conjecture: He might have been a Union spy; he might have fought in the Civil War. Most of Charyn's conjectures center on the plausible theory that the handsome marshal, who had a woman's passion for finery and diamonds, attracted the opposite sex by the carload and pursued as diligently as he was pursued.

But the cup of "Darlin' Bill" runneth over; there is too much of everything in the Charyn novel: comedy, melodrama, an adroit mystery story involving 10 (count them) murderers and a picture of modocracy as affecting as the Col. Sherburn episode in "Hucklberry Finn." Extraordinarily gifted as he is, Charyn may be ambitious to wear the mantle of Mark Twain. But we can't be sure whether he prefers the carefree author of "The Jumping Frog" or the burdened and responsible one who wrote "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg." "Darlin' Bill" intimates that Charyn may be trying to fulfill the difficult role of an early and late Mark Twain.