A big new novel by James Baldwin is always of major interest, and there are scenes here of Baldwin at his earthy, lyrical best. But this rambling book lacks overall shape, and Baldwin seems self-consciously intent on sour lip-chewing, on talking around and beyond white readers: to see him crumpling into jive-and-slap insularity is dismaying, he whose anger isn't by nature clogged and stingy but churchly, prophetic, and outcast. The chief narrative here belongs to Arthur Montana, the "Soul Emperor," a famous black gospel singer done-in finally by the combined injuries of being good of heart, black, musical, and homosexual; but the book is really a troika of three barely-yoked-together themes, all of which Baldwin has done better by before. Baldwin-the-exile writes as brilliantly as ever about how it was and is: touring the South in the Fifties, going into a bar or a store if you're black. There is the portrait of Sister Julia, a child preacher (as Baldwin was), her calling ended at the hands of her brutalizing father, then her placeless wandering as a black, childless woman in a white world. And the love scenes, as usual with Baldwin, are maudlin, but Arthur's first love affair with one of his back-up singers, Crunch, is very moving and deftly done. Wonderful, too, are the church concerts, the singing and testifying--but the sermonizing that precedes or follows them dispirits. Baldwin seems to have lost his way fictionally; he presses doggedly on here, but the path never clarifies. Bathos aplenty, anger folded-down too minutely, energy frittered--a book that seems to have imploded along the way.