RIGHT NOW this is the most valuable book we have on James Jones because the author has done indefatigable legwork -- 201 individual names, by my count, appear in the Acknowledgements alone. Frank MacShane has practically stood on his head and whistled "Dixie" to do right by his "true American primitive," as Budd Schulberg not unlovingly dubbed Jones. But the unfortunate truth is that this is not an inspired critical biography. The reasons are several, as I will try to show, but everyone who has read MacShane's corking Life of Raymond Chandler (1977) will know immediately what I mean. When a biographer has once hit the jackpot, we can never forget the freshness of the experience. This worthy effort seems plodding and dutiful by comparison.

The troubles begin, as they have in all previous biographical work on Jones, with the hovering family that the novelist left behind. They (read Gloria Jones, the writer's widow and keeper of the flame) "authorized" this book, and in spite of MacShane's obvious probity and track-record as an independent biographer, one feels that his very sense of responsibility to others has taken some of the joy out of his work. Nor does this mean to suggest that he was in any sense explicitly handcuffed in delicate areas; given the sexual worldliness and irreverence of both Jones and his wife, plus their 16 years of doing an updated Scott-and-Zelda turn in Paris, it is unthinkable that any thou-shalt-nots would be put on his reporting.

But it does mean that when MacShane has to poke into Jones' rumored bisexuality, Gloria's extensive pre-Jones literary bed-life, and so forth, he is conspicuously undetailed and discreet. It might even be, in a broader sense, that he is not entirely comfortable with the subject of James Jones and the raw erotic and scatalogical obsessions that were fundamental to his life. I mean this quite neutrally and without value judgment: Jones, in spite of having written a great realistic novel about the peacetime Army, From Here to Eternity, and two follow-up novels deserving of high respect, was not the kind of man or even writer (too unsubtle?) that one would ordinarily think Frank MacShane would identify with. MacShane, a cultivated New Yorker with an Oxford PhD who until recently ran the Graduate Writing Program at Columbia, is almost a walking incarnation of all of James Jones' defensive prejudices about "the eastern intellectual establishment." To think of the two of them joined in this probably well-intentioned but temperamentally mismated project is to conjure up a literary Mutt and Jeff image that just won't go away.

However, since he did get into it, and even though I feel that his tight, lean style loses its edge with the burden of this job, MacShane lays out the groundwork of Jones' almost mythic lumpen American life with his usual assurance. We all more or less know the story by now: the smalltown boy from southeastern Illinois whose family tumbled from privilege and who was forced to enlist in the peacetime Army in 1939 instead of becoming a day laborer. It was, of course, a tremendous decision for both our literature and our popular culture: no one before or since has written with such feeling about the American Army from the inside. An entire world that had been hidden from most educated Americans before World War II was brought to such unexpected life that it remains indelible, both for the generation that fought the war and for the national memory.

It is in Jones' struggle to write that first sweeping revelation, and to survive both the Army and the opening campaign in the Pacific (where he was lightly wounded) in order to do it, that MacShane is especially valuable. James Jones loved the Army, but he hated its regimentation from the first day, and even finally cracked up during his reassignment back in the States in 1943. He had already started writing while in the service, was absolutely consumed with his sense of mission, and was ready to go AWOL in a desperate frenzy when he met the woman who was to be his teacher and mistress for the next 13 years -- Mrs. Lowney Handy.

IT IS impossible to think of the writing of Eternity, and then later the over- ambitious Some Came Running, without the tutelary presence of this tough, courageous, unconventional woman who was 17 years older than Jones and had the encouragement of her husband in one of the strangest arrangements on record. With Jones' financial help, Lowney Handy went on to found a writing colony in Marshall, Illinois, which she ran like a literary boot camp, and many of her stubborn ideas (copying out the work of established masters, not inhibiting taboo body noises at table, using four-letter words rather than 10-letter ones, etc.) were to remain with Jones for a lifetime. She remains a startling enigma to this day, very much entitled to a biography of her own, and when Jones had to cut the cord and married the younger, more glamorous Gloria Mosolino in 1958, Handy quickly deteriorated and died six years later. But she was a powerful, magnetic presence in the first and undoubtedly most crucial half of James Jones' artistic life, a determined, "liberated" woman out of sync with her time and place, and she paid the bitter price.

The second half of both the book and the life is a more star-studded, gossipy chronicle if only because Jones found himself in a unique position, a little like a literary John L. Sullivan. With his first book he had made it on all fronts -- artistic, financial, social -- hitting practically every level of society, and when he and Gloria moved their operation to Paris they were the toast of the town for all expatriate Americans. Jones was a sort of democratic king, and Gloria a populist queen, in their big, spectacular apartment overlooking the Seine. These were indeed warm occasions (I myself was there), but at this point MacShane's portait of the authentic American original has to take a back seat to all the famous names that come to call. In fact this becomes the story, along with the Jones' two young additions to the family (Kaylie and Jamie), because as our biographer rightly says, "most of his writing did not achieve the intensity of his earlier books." High living, opportunistic movie-work to pay the bills, opportunistic topical novels like The Merry Month of May -- the life itself seemed to lose purpose when Jones strayed too far from war and men bearing arms. "Death was his business," said Mary McCarthy in one of those brilliant remarks that stop all discussion.

The Jones, of course, came home for the three years remaining to the author, where he all but wrapped up the last book of his war trilogy, Whistle (1978) after ducking it for years. Then his old business partner, Death, claimed him.

It is this reviewer's strong feeling that a good deal of time will now have to pass before we can get a totally unfettered, new look at James Jones' life and work. MacShane faithfully recounts all the main quantifiable materials -- who was at this or that dinner, what the size of an advance was, that "he had Pierre Cardin jackets but he also wore cotton chino trousers," etc. -- but I hungrily miss any sense of irony and absurdity in his narrative, any deep or even astonished sense of personal involvement. This was one larger-than-life, not unlike Orson Welles, and he can't be contained by the facts alone. Just by themselves -- in the second half especially -- they're about as thrilling as reading an overpriced menu written with the sobriety of a Bible study.