Books

updated 12/22/2003 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/22/2003 AT 01:00 AM EST

BIOGRAPHY

In Black and White
The Life of Sammy Davis, Jr.

By Wil Haygood

CRITIC'S CHOICE

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When he died of cancer at age 64 in 1990, Sammy Davis Jr.'s weight was down to 60 lbs. Talent probably accounted for 59 of those. The man could sing, dance, act and do impressions, gifts he called upon in his lifelong attempt to win from audiences the love he never received from his absent mother. To Davis, it didn't matter whether those audiences were white or black; more often they were the former.

In Black and White, a perceptive though uneven biography of Davis by Wil Haygood, who earlier chronicled the life of politician Adam Clayton Powell Jr., trenchantly concentrates on the role race played in the singer's life. The author dutifully tells of Davis's early abandonment by his mother while she pursued a career as a showgirl, a childhood spent tap-dancing across vaudeville stages with his dad, the car crash that cost him an eye, his friendship with Frank Sinatra and his marriages (to singer Loray White, movie actress May Britt and dancer Altovise Gore). But the book's real meat is in its nuanced portrayal of Davis's conflicted sense of self. Although the entertainer was active from the beginning in the civil rights movement, marching, giving money and helping to raise it, he was never completely at home in his own skin. "Sammy," says Peggy King, a white singer with whom he had a serious affair in the '50s, "wanted to be white—and pretty." It's a sad sentiment, echoed by others both white and black, throughout this intriguing book.

NOVEL
The Third Child
By Marge Piercy

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Melissa Dickinson's parents, a Pennsylvania senator and his Lady Macbeth-like wife, are the sort of social climbers who invite the homeless for Thanksgiving but make them eat in the kitchen with the help. Their daughter Melissa despises them.

This occasionally promising blend of romance, shallow political commentary and bang-bang thriller is ambitious: Piercy paints Melissa as a 21st-century Juliet. Romeo is Blake Ackerman, the son of one of the senator's political enemies. Blake's ability to hack into the family's computers and damage reputations is a power trip for a girl driven by resentment of her family. But even Melissa has doubts about Blake, and her uncertainty is the only real drama here. Piercy comes from the hit-'em-over-the-head school of story development: In case somebody misses the Romeo and Juliet parallel, Blake's mother and Melissa's buddy point it out. Piercy does best when she stops cribbing from Shakespeare and trusts her own ability to draw out conflict.

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