THE GUN is on the food, nested like meat against the potatoes: naked lunch.

This is the notorious liner art on "Excitable Boy," War-comic if you can take it, and compelling even if it takes you away - an announcement that the songs inside will be slugs, both hollow-point and nickle-plated.

"Slugs," of course, is a word that leads a nice parade of meanings: a belt of whiskey, a fist in the face, a bullet, a false coin and the thing that crawls on your roses. All of these metaphors vibrate hotly here, stirring the excitement that has turned Zevon, in the last few months, from a minor cult figure into a major one. And if the mass audience still eludes him, despite the success of his "Werewolves of London" single, this glossy supper of murder suggests some reasons why.

The picture is a crib. It shows Zevon's students (and he'll have those even after he's exhausted his fans) how they are to parse his verse. In good modernist fashion, the poet has even made the job harder, telling one interviewer that the snapshot is "suggestive in various ways on various levels . . . a satire of the album or an embodiment of it."

Or both. But it's mainly as the latter that the image takes on real interest, since most satire is cheap business, and being against violence is as boring as being for it is vile. Zevon is aware of this tension, and his wish to be seen as occupying neither stand has prompted him to raise the issue even more often than his critics do. He told New Times that while he might like to think of "Excitable Boy" as satire, "it may be just a violent album," and repeated the notion more fully for a reporter from Ampersand: "It would be easy to say that 'Excitable Boy' is just a big satire on the fact that violence has become the greatest escape entertainment in America . . . But it may be that there is a violent strain in this album that is more real than satire."

It may be. But there's a literary tone, more pronounced than either of these possibilities, that locates Warren Zevon's work well within the mainstream of American popular prose. Such a claim sounds unfounded if we note only his subjects, but it can be substantiated with a look at how his dialectic plays itself out on every level.

Zevon's sense of history, in particular, is special; it is a sense announced in a song about Jesse James on the album "Warren Zevon" and enlarged by the viciously enchanting "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner" on "Excitable Boy."

"Roland" is awesome. Its sound is that of an IRA or border ballad; its story comes from an ex-mercenary friend of Zevon's; its theme is genuinely mythic in scale, its subject is appalling and its conclusions are ambiguous.

Roland, a Christian prince in the medieval chanson, is in this update a Danish mercenary killed in Africa by a one-time colleague in pay of the CIA. Headless, his ghost kills his killer and then becomes eternal, showing up 10 years later "in Ireland, in Lebanon, in Palestine and Berkeley" where it makes a psychic contract with Patty Hearst, who "heard the burst of Roland's Thompson gun and bought it." What saves this conclusion from the taint of guerrilla chic is the double meaning of the last line; "bought it" can mean either to agree to the gun or to die by it. Or both.

Zevon has said that the song's co-author tells him the story is "true," but it clearly has literary antecedents, including A.E. Housman's mercenaries who "saved the sum of things for pay," and Hugh MacDairmid's retort, "It is a God-damned lie to say that these/Saved . . . anything."

For in his songs full of memory and firearms, of drink, drugs and so-sad-to-see-good-love-go-bad, Zevon is after an art so rich that, to be seen whole, it has to be heard as a play of opposites. "Roland" advances this art of opposites, transfiguring both the Housman and MacDairmid poems and offers as well the understanding that history is no less a product of imagination than fiction, and that, like art's, its performances tend to be repeated.

As form, Zevon says his work intends to "unify the realms of classical music and popular song." As content, it sets stories of the perils of family life and erotic attachment against legends of violence in the unconscious and a history of it in the American past. And as total structure, it puts visual images into narrative sequence and often opposes perverse lyrics to palliative tunes. So - although he's a heavy-voiced rocker with a band that can burn out the wires - it's these literary qualities that have made a good many critics turn greedily toward him. He's what they can recognize: a writer, and a dammed good one.

He can do in two lines a novel of family life that Walker Percy would admire ("Well, he went down to dinner in his Sunday best . . . And he rubbed the pot roast all over his chest"), and, in one more, another story of love in the ruins (" . . . he raped her and killed her, then he took her home"). Zevon even falls prey to the writer's common vice of role consciousness (his narrators wield Smith-Coronas as well as Smith & Wessons), and he knows that the hardest part of his job is "being miserable between songs." It was getting the words right that kept "Excitable Boy" so long in the can. "If I have a strong instinctual feeling that the writing's not there," Zevon told critic John Rockwell, "I stall." He also seeks co-authors, offering friends fragments he's fond of but can't finish, like a Renaissance painter handing the background over to an apprentice.

In this light, the comparisons to Sam Peckinpah, Graham Greene, Norman Mailer and Nathanael West that keep cropping up in discussions of Zevon's work are not surprising. What's really impressive is that they may soon be unnecessary.

He is on the edge of being a writer whose immediate output need be compared only to the earlier stages of its own development. Song after song offers evidence that Zevon is working very close to his unconscious, his "dream protocols," his reptile brain. He has a strong perspective on history, a deep sense of myth and a will to mind his madness.

Take a look at a single technical element of fiction - point of view. While most writers of rock can't get beyond solipsism, Zevon is rarely identical to his narrator. His songs are sung not only about but by Western outlaws, African mercenaries, junkies, farm boys, failed suicides, urban psychopathi, Mexican aristocrats, men who see werewolves where vampires belong and the oversoul of rock 'n' roll itself. The interplay between these personae and their imagined audiences structures the fantasies that feed the imaginations of Zevon's following, who in turn feed themselves into the songs: At his concerts, there are always a few fans wearing werewolf masks.

It can be an alarming picture. Contrasting his brushes with physical danger in Spain with the sense of psychic dread that dogs him in his native land, Zevon has suggested that " . . . America, there may be a greater idea of violence than there is a reality of violence in other places that don't inspire as much parancia. And that's what ends up being my expression in laying the largest handgun made right on the dinner plate."

It's home cooking, too, Zevon's wife's, from whom he was recently separated. And if the parsley potatoes look good enough to eat, the gun looks real enough to fire.

By physically casing his visual songs within so graphic an image, the poet uses the package itself to insist that his audience match his complexity of vision with their ambiguity of response: The point is not to wreck the listener's appetite, but to make him wonder just what it is he's really hungry for.

Upping the ante between artist and audience is a classic ploy of serious American popular art. Writers and rock stars, filmmakers, court fools and poets who want it all - honor, fame, and cash - must seek a mass audience via familiar forms while simultaneously undercutting their chances of success with unfamiliar and socially dangerous content, thus risking not the anger of the audience, which certifies the artist's power, but its indifferences, which confirms to him his lack of special worth. Critic Greil Marcus, who convincingly explores popular art on the basis of that notion, has shown this particular artist's relationship to it:

"To attempt to reach a popular audience - which is what good rock 'n' roll singers like Zevon do for a living with songs about headless African mercenaries, nice boys who do in their girl friends and the like - is no easy thing, nor any sort of trivial act. To attempt to unsettle a popular audience, which is what artists like Zevon do for their own peace of mind is much harder: You may put out the strongest stuff you know, and it may bounce right off the audience or be absorbed without a shudder."

As if in confirmation, Zevon offers a number of songs on other subjects altogether - lost love, rock itself - that seem also loaded with lines about the risks and rewards of the author/audience relationship. In "Johnny Strikes Up the Band," the hero is "guaranteed to please/back by popular demand"; in "Mohammed's Radio," a voice is trying to tell an audience "Something they already know/So their anger and resentment flow/But don't it make you want to rock and roll?"

And in "Accidentally Like a Martyr," the narrator puts two kinds of sorrow and separation together:

"Never thought I'd have to pay so dearly

For what was already mine . . ."

Appropriately, Warren Zevon's personal history contains what must be a mix of fact and legend.

A native Californian once befriended by Igor Stravinski, Zevon had a nomadic youth all over the West before settling in Los Angeles as a self-taught classical composer. He later wrote commercials for Gallo wine, toured as musical director and pianist for the Everly Brothers, played clubs in San Francisco and Colorado, and in 1975 spent a year in a bar in Spain before being brought back to Los Angeles by songwriter Jackson Browne, who urged Zevon to record and toured with him in 1976. The same year, Zevon's first "official" album, with his name as its title, was released to some acclaim but small sales. (There is a mysterious earlier album, never mentioned except as being "never mentioned.")

These connections to the high council of southern California rock (Linda Ronstadt has also recorded his songs and sung on his albums) cut a trail for a better reception for "Excitable Boy"; ironically, there are very few songs on the record that aren't far superior to the work of its sponsors. The only insipid tune in the collection, "Tenderness on the Block," is one co-written with Jackson Browne.

Elsewhere, Zevon's words are so concretely chosen that it's an insult to call them symbols, though they invariably structure meanings that take a fierce delight in self-concealment. The best work is close to minimal: in "Lawyers, Guns and Money," the stanzas are only footnotes to the title, which has already told listeners what they need to talk their way out of what they can't shoot their way out of or buy their way out of.

Formal explication of "Ronald," minimalist theories of "Lawyers, Guns and Money," and hints of biographical criticism would seem to put us at some distance from the wop-bop-a-lop of primordial rock 'n' roll.

But the majority of Warren Zevon's songs take fixes on more usual pop topics, like young love or death from an overdose, and the best of them tend to memorialize the peaks and gutters of pop culture: While not New Wave in sound, "Execitable Boy" mocks punk rock in story; "Night-time in the Switching Yard" dismembers disco; "Werewolves of London" remembers Carnaby Street as a source of fashion in clothing, fantasy and song.

"Werewolves" also contains a diet of metaphor so rich as to demonstrate the recklessness with his talents that has signaled Zevon's admirers to be careful in thei praise. And there are other songs whose elusive nature doesn't always win through the caution their charm arouses. It's not clear whether a line like," "Your face looked like something/Death brought with him in his suitcase," gets, or gets in, its own way.

Moreover, Zevon as a stage performer hasn't yet devised a style to match his singing, and a powerful public presence is still prerequisite to pop stardom.

But this is quibbling. With rock seemingly split between tired Texas traumata on one hand and disco bohos suited up like preschoolers in plasticine on the other, Warren Zevon has arrived in the nick of time - not to be the long-awaited Next Big Thing in rock, but to dispel the illusion that we need one.