'The Candy Men': Biography of a Dirty Novel
By James Campbell
The Rollicking Life and Times of the Notorious Novel ''Candy.''
By Nile Southern.
Illustrated. 388 pp. Arcade Publishing. $27.95.

POOR Candy Christian. Conceived to satisfy the needs of a pair of impecunious writers, a notorious pornographer and a host of stifled readers, she spent her best years enmeshed in the legal system, being abducted frequently by pirates along the way. Candy, whose response to each alarming turn of fortune was a wide-eyed ''Good grief!,'' emerged into freedom and respectability at the end of the 1960's, only to find her generous sexuality -- once characterized by Nelson Algren as an ''aptitude for wriggling out of her panties in noble causes'' -- under indictment by feminists.

The novel ''Candy'' was dreamed up by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg in Paris in 1956, and quickly sold as an idea to Maurice Girodias of the Olympia Press. A sly maverick who nevertheless stands as one of the heroes of post-World War II avant-garde literature, Girodias specialized in pornographic novels with lurid titles, written in English for sale to tourists. Interleaved with his ''dirty book,'' or ''D.B.'' catalog, however, were works that have come to define the era: ''Lolita,'' by Vladimir Nabokov; ''The Ginger Man,'' by J. P. Donleavy; Samuel Beckett's ''Molloy-Malone'' trilogy; William Burroughs's ''Naked Lunch,'' and the early translations of Jean Genet. Girodias took them on when no one else dared.

Girodias's method of commissioning novels for a one-time payment was straightforward and fair, in its way. Southern and Hoffenberg, writing under the joint name of Maxwell Kenton, were happy to sell their ''gallant little novel,'' as Girodias called it, for a few hundred dollars, to be paid by installment as the chapters were delivered. A score of young British and American writers on the Left Bank had been doing the same.

Most Olympia titles survived only a single edition of 5,000 copies. In a few cases, however, what began as a piece of high jinks came to be seen as a valuable property. When the world perceived in Candy's erotic yet innocent antics among hipsters, doctors, ''Crackers'' (originally Quakers) and Buddhists something wittier and sharper than is usually encountered in mass-production porn, the foreign rights gained a commercial shine. Bidding began with an offer for an Italian translation, and shortly afterward Walter Minton of G. P. Putnam's entered the fray, eager to replicate his company's success with ''Lolita,'' another novel about sex and innocence and another Olympia original. At this point, Southern and Hoffenberg naively claimed that the rights to ''Candy'' were theirs alone; Girodias pointed out that they had entered into a deal whereby he, having paid an outright fee (copyright was barely mentioned in Olympia deals), expected a share of future profits. From that basic disagreement stemmed years of litigation in the United States, France and Britain, scuttling film and publishing deals and leaving the field open to pirate editions, of which there were at least seven between 1965 and 1968.

This is the story told by Nile Southern in ''The Candy Men,'' a highly successful example of an underexploited genre, the biography of a book. The adventures of ''Candy'' have been related before, but never as fully and sympathetically as here, with letters, contracts, legal minutiae, multifaceted biography and, now and then, a wistful personal detail, all conspiring to take the story forward. As the son and trustee of the estate of one of the authors of ''Candy,'' Southern is uniquely placed to do justice to the story. He quotes at length from his father's correspondence and from the archives of Hoffenberg and Girodias, and his treatment of the material at times gives ''The Candy Men'' more the feel of a collection of letters than a slice of literary history. Southern is generous to all the parties involved, even when circumstances, as outlined by him, suggest that they scarcely deserve it.

Deceit, distrust and self-destruction are the motors of ''The Candy Men.'' When Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg moved to cut Girodias out of the Italian arrangement and the likely American jackpot, Girodias accused them of betrayal. They in turn claimed that treachery was a concept with which he was all too well acquainted. Girodias's lawyer characterized his client's attitude as ''if the other guy wants to sign a contract, it can't be a good deal.'' Hoffenberg, a New York poet with a heavy drug habit, was at least as obstructive as Girodias (he had previously written two potboilers for Olympia: ''Until She Screams'' and ''Sin for Breakfast''). His addiction hampered his writing of the allotted part of ''Candy'' and eventually led him to a wilderness where he functioned as a rock hanger-on.

As for Southern, the possessor of a genuine literary talent who is perhaps better known for his work on films like ''Dr. Strangelove'' and ''Easy Rider'' than for any book besides ''Candy,'' he was fired by the twin illusions that obscenity was sufficient as a creative motive and that movies, more than books, was where the artistic action was. After his attempt to blend his main interests (literature, cinema, sex) in a single novel, ''Blue Movie'' (1970), he was sucked into what Nile Southern calls ''the cycle of fruitless speculative script development.'' Those words sound just as sad as what he writes next, that at the end of the 60's Southern ''left his marriage, and was separated for long periods from his young son.''

By then, ''Candy'' was a money-making machine -- for lawyers. Putnam's attempts to curtail the actions of pirate publishers were successful only when it was too late and Candymania had passed. Girodias was apt to encourage the pirates one day and sue them the next. In 1970, at the end of a decade of litigation, $9,000 was divided among the estranged principals -- ''bitter and paltry spoils from a dissatisfying war,'' as Nile Southern puts it -- from a book that had sold millions and could have enriched parents and midwife accordingly. Even the film, generally agreed to be dire, was popular because of a cast including Marlon Brando, Walter Matthau and James Coburn. The role of the all-American girl was given to a Miss Teenage Sweden. ''At that point,'' Southern wrote, ''I withdrew. Richard Burton was a kind of Dylan Thomas poet who had a wind machine sweeping up his scarf. Brando was some kind of holy man. Charles Aznavour played a Richard III figure who was supposed to represent the hunchback. . . . It was nothing like the book.''

Copyright, as much as censorship, hindered ''Candy'' in the United States. In France, after the vice squad impounded the stock, Girodias simply reprinted the book as ''Lollipop,'' reasoning that while policemen might recognize the banned title, they would be unable to follow the English text. As late as 1968 in Britain the novel had to undergo a ''pornectomy'' before the publisher's lawyer could endorse it.

Few would consider ''Candy'' pornographic today. Even as an erotic lark, it seems lite. There remains a freshness about some of the writing, but the modern reader is likely to be made uneasy by a suspicion, heightened by many letters printed here, that Candy's creators were eager to pimp their innocent darling for all she was worth. The tone of Southern and Hoffenberg's postal chatter, can be sleazy. Southern belonged to a generation of writers that felt obliged to engage with obscenity as a revolt against everything from the ease of middle-class life to the atomic bomb. As an attitude, it had its usefulness, though it need be balanced against its inherent limitations. But the moral of Nile Southern's thoroughly enjoyable book has nothing to do with dirty books or incestuous adventures. It is: don't sign over your copyright.

James Campbell's books include Exiled in Paris: Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Samuel Beckett and Others on the Left Bank.