OF ALL THE WELL-KNOWN novelists of the day, James Baldwin is among the warmest, the most companionable, the least ironic. So many contemporary writers seem imcapable of presenting loyalty, innocence or happiness, especially family happiness, but Baldwin inhabits these feelings with great naturalness and intensity. He can show, as he does more than once in Just Above My Head , parents and children exchanging gifts at Christmas or during a reunion. The family members have tears in their eyes, not of regret but of anticipation, not of loneliness but of love. Looked at merely as a literary fashion (and it is, of course, much, much more), the direct depiction of such ardor is unique today; one has to go back to Dickens to find a similar impulse in a major writer, though in Dickens the happy moments are all too often bathetic, whereas in Baldwin they glow with the steadiness and clarity of a flame within a glass globe.

Walter Benjamin, the German-Jewish writer, once remarked, "Death is the sanction of everything that the storyteller can tell." He meant, I think, that only in death does someone's life take shape, gain authority, turn into a tale. Acknowledging this truth, Baldwin begins his novel with the death of his hero, Arthur Montana, a celebrated gospel singer. The rest of the long book is a delving into Arthur's life by his devoted older brother, Hall, the narrator.

The most remarkable character, however, is Julia, whom we first encounter at age nine as a child preacher. Julia is a hypocrite, an eerily controlled monster of vanity and manipulation bent on destroying her mother and seducing her father. Of such stuff melodramas are made, and Baldwin drains every bit of juice from this juiciest of material. True melodrama, however, with its demand for villains and heroes, is a failure of compassion, and Balwin is above all a wise and compassionate writer. Accordingly, once Julia achieves her monstrous goals (her mother dies, her father becomes her lover, at once pitiless and pitiful), she turns in terror from her victory, loses her faith, renounces her ministry -- and, after years of self-degradation, grows into a woman of formidable dignity and understanding.

The central figure, Arthur, is another test for Baldwin's delicacy of sentiment, for his powers as a diplomat of the emotions, because Arthur is both black and homosexual. To present a homosexual character in the round and with sympathy is still, I suppose, a challenge even to a white writer, but granting acceptance to male homosexuality in the black community is a still greater problem, historically and politically. The prevailing theory is that because the black man was degraded so long by the dominant society, he must be restored to a position of pride as the head of the family (this theory has been challenged recently in a controversial book, Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman , by Michele Wallace). Nonetheless, among many black thinkers the idea of machismo has become an article of faith, a precondition for autonomy, self-respect and family decency. Male homosexuality, mistakenly equated with effeminacy and white decadence, has been rejected strenuously by many black spokesmen ("faggot" has often served as a catchword for the white enemy). So much for rhetoric. In practice, by contrast, black heterosexuals have traditionally accepted gay women and men with more straightforwardness than have their white counterparts. This acceptance seems to be especially true in the black church and in the entertainment business.

In Just Above My Head Baldwin has successfully placed the black male homosexual back into the context of black society. Baldwin is not, it seems, arguing for gay liberation (which black leaders have generally seen as a distracting side issue that has begun to replace justice for blacks as a fasionable "media event"). No, the attitude embodied in this novel is one of tolerance and acceptance of all forms of sexuality so that the crusaders for black rights can march forward, united.

When Arthur is a teenager and still a member of a gospel quartet, The Trumpets of Zion, he falls in love with Crunch, another member of the group. The scenes in which they discover their love for each other are the best written in the book -- hushed, concentrated, immaculately detailed. Later, when he has become an adult and a well-known soloist, Arthur has two other affairs, one with a white man in France and another with Julia's younger brother Jimmy. The Arthur-Jimmy affair is balanced by a relationship between Julia and Arthur's brother Hall, a double fusion of family love and erotic love. Again and again homosexual alliances are paralleled by those that are heterosexual until the reader begins to respond to the emotions and experiences of individuals, regardless of their affectional preferences. As a young man Baldwin wrote Giovanni's Room , a homosexual love story in which the characters are white. He has before and since written many books about blacks who happen to be heterosexual (Just Above My Head is his 19th published work). His decision to bring homosexuality and blackness together is courageous, given the tense political situation; that he has done so with such tact is a sign of his decency and artistry.

But this novel is not merely about a character's exploration of his homosexuality. Arthur -- and Julia and Hall and all the other characters -- must also come to terms with their blackness. Arthur does so in Paris, where he meets an ancient black American singing blues in a nightclub, surrounded by black Africans and white Europeans. Color, no longer perceived through "the optic of power and guilt," resolves into many individual shades.

But color is a shorthand for power in America, and the integration struggles of the 1960s in the South are swiftly and dramatically related at the heart of the novel. For young people to whom those days are nothing but a dry chapter in history, this book will serve to put human flesh on schematic bones. Never has the story of the heroic civil rights movement been more powerfully rendered.

Just Above My Head is not a perfect novel; fiction that is politically engaged is always less elegant than reactionary fiction, which lavishes on form the attention a progressive literature must also devote to content. Arthur -- and especially Arthur's death -- are disappointingly shadowy. Too much of "Book One" is carelessly written. Too many scenes occur in bars and restaurants as anecdotes exchanged over dinner and drinks, as though Baldwin is so eager to tell stories that he forgets to show actions. No matter. In whole long sections the style is imbued with Baldwin's peculiarly indirect vision, his idiosyncratic way of catching the imprecision, the blurriness, of experience. And, despite the clinking of forks and cocktail glasses, the tale does move forward on coiled muscles -- this is the work of a born storyteller at the height of his powers, a man who, now that he is older and more mature, has truly come into his own. As the most celebrated black American novelist, Baldwin has given his readers a comprehensive and comprehending examination of race and sexuality and suggested some of the ways in which the politics of color can shape the transactions of love.