TODAY, NOT QUITE 20 years after his death, John Fante's considerable underground status is maintained, almost exclusively, by the hand-to-hand passage of his tattered novels among renegade connoisseurs who relish the dirty little secrets of "good" bad writing... or is it "bad" good writing? Either way, Fante is considered by many to be the first and most daring of L.A.'s fashionably deadbeat scribes. His incendiary, often shocking fiction is appreciated for the supple means by which it captures the self-lacerating paradoxes of an excessively romantic sensibility. Like Knut Hamsun and Sherwood Anderson--his two biggest influences--Fante serves up his fare in "deceptively simple" language; what is distinctly his is the almost unhinged quality of his prose, its emotionally bombastic and morally unnerving aspect of neurotic longings laid bare on the page.

In Full of Life: A Biography of John Fante, Stephen Cooper hews closely to the notion of fiction writing as automythography; Fante himself insisted that an author and his work are one and the same, and as such, form an interpenetrating, indivisible totality of person/persona. If generally true, this critical directive is especially felicitous in the case of Fante, whose fictional alter-ego, Arturo Bandini, was cannily concocted in the duality of whipping post and wish fulfillment for the author's "confessional" fictions. As Cooper notes of Fante's penchant for self-plagiarism, his "own life had always been his best raw material... (and) since his life was so bound up with the transformative art of his writing, it was natural that his writing should again become raw material, the palimpsest upon which he would continue rewriting his most deeply written, writing self."

Cooper structures everything around this cyclical notion of the writer as both the subject and object of experiential re-creation; his emphasis on the primacy of "the written, writing self" allows him to expand or compress spans of time according to both the quality and quantity of work Fante was doing at any given point in his life. Hence, Fante's most fruitless and soul-sucking years spent as a hack Hollywood screenwriter move at a good clip, without losing any sense of the disastrous toll they had on the author's creative energies. Conversely, the inspirations, frustrations, and fictional antecedents that informed Fante's greatest triumphs (Ask the Dust, Wait until Spring, Bandini) make for exceptionally informative, well-rounded passages, treated with verve and a shimmering analytic and historical clarity.

A delicate balance is struck by Cooper between the opposing poles of apology and assassination, those twin forces that forever threaten to founder the intellectual veracity (or at least dignity) of literate biographies. Cooper clearly admires Fante, yet he isn't averse to revealing what an arrogant and belligerent son of a bitch he could be. On the other hand, glimpses into the often ugly nature of Fante's personal life (alcoholism, gambling, familial neglect) are plugged directly into the fascinating embellishments that characterize his fiction. Fante utilized style as a self-constructed mirror held at different angles to his own split psyche, reflecting back contradictory yet correlated images--fun-house mirror, the flip-up compact of narcissism, broken glass bits of wry self-loathing. For Cooper, as it was for Fante, it's ultimately the self-referential work in relation to the self-referencing writer that counts.

Full of Life is in every way a writer's book about a writer (Cooper himself is an award-winning novelist), which is to say it's not only readable, but pleasantly so. Cooper's prose is nimble, and the calibrated gaze he casts upon his subject is brought to focus with equalizing amounts of respect and curiosity. Cooper has done some vigorous homework, and just as vigorously done away with any spurious details or specious arguments that might make for one of those monstrous, unwieldy "definitive" studies. A wonderful job is done in reconstructing the tense, often harrowing roller coaster ride of Fante's career, from his reckless ambition and early successes through his crises of conscience in the sinkhole of Hollywood to his arduous struggles to regain literary self-worth. To this end, Cooper had the full blessings of the author's widow, Joyce, who granted him unlimited access to the "gold mine" of Fante's personal files--"as much evidence in one place as anyone could hope for of a person's life."

These "four tall black metal file cabinets" contained "baptismals, studio contracts, tax returns" etc., as well as "ream after ream of typewritten and handwritten manuscripts." Hence, not only was Cooper greatly aided in piecing together the facts of Fante's tumultuous life, but he was also able to bring together a volume's worth of previously uncollected short stories. The Big Hunger is a lovely companion to the biography: It provides snapshot evidence of Fante at his emotionally electrified best ("Charge It," "The First Time I Saw Paris") as well as when he falls prey to the sophomoric schlock of his own arrogance (as in "Bus Ride"). It is largely due to Fante's unexpected, seemingly reckless movements between these polarizing tendencies that his work continues to charm modern readers; Fante was a wonderfully flawed writer whose nervous tics revealed the brutalized source of a graceful intent. Cooper's generous efforts confer a fascinating depth-of-field to Fante's own ingeniously duplicitous self-portraits.