A convict whose book on prison life was published last month to stunning reviews, and who had been befriended and championed while still in prison by Norman Mailer, is being sought by police here for questioning in a murder.

Jack Henry Abbott, author of "In The Belly of The Beast: Letters From Prison," was called in Sunday's New York Times Book Review "an exceptional man with an exceptional literary gift," his voice "like no other, his language sharp-edged and hurling with rage."

But, at the same time that review was on the stands, Abbott was being sought for questioning in the stabbing of a waiter outside a Manhattan restaurant.

Police say a man -- who they believe to be Abbott -- had been sitting at a table in the BiniBon Restaurant on Second Avenue with two women when he got into an argument with waiter/manager Richard Adan at about 5:30 a.m. Saturday.

The men stepped outside the restaurant to continue the argument. Sometime later, Adan, 22, was fatally stabbed in the chest. The killer fled.

The argument, according to Detective William Majeski, "began as a low-key verbal altercation regarding the availability of a bathroom. Shortly thereafter, the argument was taken outside. I know it doesn't sound very logical to get into a fight over a bathroom, but the fact is, it is not very logical."

Precisely what happened outside the restaurant is unclear. Police have issued no warrant and filed no charges in the case. Abbott is being sought only for questioning.

Thirty-seven years old, Jack Henry Abbott was born on a Michigan army base, the child of a prostitute. At 12, after living in a series of foster homes, he was sent to reform school for car theft, burglary, and gun theft.

Free at 18, he was out of prison for only six months before being sent back for "issuing a check against insufficient funds." At 21 he killed a fellow inmate. Later, during an escape from prison, he robbed a bank. Between the ages of 12 and 37, he lived outside of prison for approximately nine months.

In his book, Abbott writes that he had been "state-raised" and because of that, because of having lived a life in prison, he lives "only through words, through reading and my immature imagination. I can imagine I feel these emotions . . . but I do not. At age 37 I am barely a precocious child. My passions are those of a boy."

The book, which The Washington Post called "a saga, a heroic story," came into being when Abbott contacted Mailer at the time the writer was working on "The Executioner's Song" about Gary Gilmore, the Utah inmate who was executed at his own request.

Abbott, in a letter to Mailer, said that he understood that Mailer wanted to learn about prison life and that he could describe "what it is like to be seriously a long-term prisoner in an American prison."

Mailer was interested, and the correspondence began. It resulted in 1,000 pages of letters from prison. Mailer brought the letters to his agent, Scott Meredith, and Meredith brought the book to Random House.

"Norman called and said this man was a major writing talent and we agreed," says Meredith, who negotiated "a modest deal, a $15,000 advance, through that's pretty good for a first book." Meredith said that Abbott should earn about $60,000 from books currently in print, and his royalties could go as high as $200,000.

He denied reports that he, Mailer, and Random House had intervened to help Abbott obtain an early release from prison. Meredith said that their letters had been confined to "comments on literary talents." A spokesman for Random House, where editor-in-chief Jason Epstein declined to comment, confirmed Meredith's account.

"We recommended the high quality of . . . his writing, and indicated that there was every reason to believe that he could support himself as a professional writer," said Random House director of corporate affairs William T. Loverd.

He would not discuss Abbott's adjustment to life outside prison and said that Abbott's editor at Random House had decided not to comment.

Meredith, who had gotten to know Abbott since his June 6 release, said Abbott had been working as a $150-a-week researcher for Mailer and living in a halfway house. He was expected to be paroled next month.

"It was quite extraordinary, in the book he talks about violence being a way of life in prison, but in outside life, that wasn't the case.

"He was a gentle sort of person and a gentleman. . . . There was no sign of any violent behavior. . . . He never lost his temper. . . . He did become frustrated rather easily over small things. . . . He didn't know anything about the ways of the outside world, little things.

"He called up the other day because he had run out of toothpaste and he didn't know where you go to buy a tube of toothpaste. When we gave him his money he didn't even know how to open a bank account . . . . His editor at Random House had to go with him . . . but there was no sense of anger about that, none whatsoever. . . ."

Meredith spoke with his author last Friday. The conversation had to do with the McDonald Colony, an artist's retreat in New Hampshire. Abbott wanted to know how to apply, and Meredith, knowing that at McDowell the business of daily life -- food, laundry and housing -- were all taken care of, thought it was a fine idea.

They also discussed a book Abbott wanted to write. It was to have been a novel, says Meredith, about making the adjustment to outside life.