Furious life of James Baldwin (1924-87), coolly retold by a Times Literary Supplement editor and friend. Campbell makes it clear that Baldwin's strength lay in the essay but that he used the novel ``to change the language''-at which he failed. Aside from The Fire Next Time, his startling essay on race relations, it's hard to come away from this life feeling that Baldwin truly succeeded as a writer in any large way following his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain. Baldwin never knew his father and was shocked in his teens when told that Harlem preacher David Baldwin was not his father. James himself became a Holy Roller preacher until he lost his faith at 17, then turned to novelist Richard Wright as his artistic father. The intellectual leader of any school he attended, he soon shot down Wright as a bumbler at prose but followed Wright's example by becoming an expatriate in Paris. At 20 or so, Baldwin was already writing for Partisan Review and the little mags. He early became what he called ``a drinking man''-which may account for the falling off and lack of focus in his work following his first novel. His second novel, Giovanni's Room, had no blacks in it but explored Baldwin's homosexuality. A world traveler, he tended, as Campbell shows, to swell later novels plotlessly, with pointless dialogue, purple patches. The Fire Next Time at midcareer was perhaps his last piece of work before abandoning careful writing for ``blues and jazz'' prose, a talky misfire that, coupled with demagogic hectoring picked up from the black revolution, did him in as an artist. Some bad jive from a soul brother could make him tearful; he was pursued by the FBI; he often went to pieces and had to rest up in hospitals. But many of his long, meandering works gathered power as they went along. Campbell tells all this with a friend's understanding. Even so. Baldwin snaps to life on the page only at times, as if standing at the bar and talking your ear off.