James Baldwin--distinguished novelist and essayist, passionate advocate for civil rights, ""witness"" (his own self-description) of enormous personal magnetism, and associate of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy--is a dream subject for a literary biographer; and if Baldwin hasn't found his dream biographer in Weatherby (Conversations with Marilyn; Squaring Off: Mailer versus Baldwin), the result here is at least serviceable and often absorbing. Although Weatherby knew his subject for 30 years, Baldwin's histrionic temperament made his own life so completely a matter of public record that there's little here that's new to say. Weatherby briskly surveys familiar ground--Baldwin's illegitimacy, his complex literary relationship with Richard Wright, his rise to fame during the 1950's, his open and unfashionable homosexuality, his political activism during the 1960's--without, on the whole, offering any striking new evidence or interpretations. His book is more journalistic than most literary biographies: there's no analysis and scant assessment of particular works, and while his selection of King's death as the crucial turning point in Baldwin's career is convincing, his emphasis on Baldwin's public life never allows him to show just why the assassination should have changed Baldwin's tone so deeply. Reading his book, moreover, is like watching a TV retrospective in which microphones are repeatedly thrust into the faces of people whose testimony becomes repetitious (constant emphasis on Baldwin's fire and charm) or who have nothing to say (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt reports on a conversation he's forgotten; E.L. Doctorow can't remember what he did in editing Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone). Readers interested in an orthodox life-and-works approach to Baldwin will want to wait for David Adams Leeming's authorized biography. In the meantime, this offers a corrective to the pervasive view of Baldwin as a sedate elder statesman to the black movement, and testifies persuasively to the radical power of Baldwin's witness.