PROFESSION.John L'Heureux.Viking.403 pages...

AN HONORABLE

March 03, 1991|By DIANE SCHARPER UNDER SIEGE. Stephen Coonts. Pocket Books. 408 pages. $19.95.

AN HONORABLE PROFESSION.

John L'Heureux.

Viking.

403 pages. $19.95. John L'Heureux's latest novel is a contemporary morality tale. Reminiscent of both "The Scarlet Letter" and "The Lord of the Flies," it explores the nature of cruelty, compassion and love. Set in a Massachusetts high school, the story focuses on Miles Bannon, a deeply sensitive man. The book opens as Bannon, an English teacher, feels impeding doom.

Soon Billy Mack, a shy boy, is brutally raped. Bannon becomes unwittingly involved; to make matters worse, he experiences an overload of depression and guilt as his mother dies from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. In addition, Bannon must cope with two less-than-happy love affairs; finally he must hold his and his students' lives together in what becomes at times an overly melodramatic nightmare of cover-ups, rumors and blackmail.

But the strength of "An Honorable Profession" lies in the characterization of Bannon. He looks into his own heart and asks his students to consider the questions he finds there: What is cruelty? What is compassion? How, this novel asks, does love answer such questions? For the first time in this century a war is fought on our own soil. The time is the middle of the Bush administration's term of office: The president wants to show he is tough on the flow of drugs into this country, so he extradites the head of the Medellin drug cartel to Washington for trial.

The plan backfires. The administration does not count on the drug barons fighting back. The president is severely wounded by a hired assassin, while at the same time a well-organized army is sent to shoot up the Congress and cause chaos in Washington. Vice President Quayle assumes responsibility for directing the fight against the criminals who now control the streets.

Stephen Coonts' other books, such as "Flight of the Intruder," are filled with references to high-tech weapons, but in this book he concentrates on how the situation he has depicted might be handled. Most interesting of all is the way he treats Mr. Quayle: Mr. Coonts is merciless at times in his treatment of the vice president, but shows that he somehow will get through the crisis.

GARY ROEN

WEAKNESS IS A CRIME.

Robert Ernst.

Syracuse University Press.

278 pages. $34.95;

$17.95 paperback.

In the vast collection of American oddballs, eccentrics and colorful characters, Bernarr Macfadden surely stands out. Born in 1868, he went from being an itinerant wrestler and body-building enthusiast to establishing a place as a leading health and fitness spokesman and a prominent publisher. Among the publications he founded was the notorious New York Graphic, a tabloid that featured such headlines as " 'Ruined by Love Potion!' Says Girl in Own Story of Her Mad Revels."

A free-thinker and social critic who fought unceasingly against prudery -- and even ran for president in the 1930s -- Macfadden espoused theories on health that were decades ahead of their time, such as the importance of nutrition and exercise. Charles Atlas professed to be an admirer, though not all agreed: H. L. Mencken described Macfadden as one who fancied himself "an authority upon the crimes of modern medicine without knowing anything more about the human body than any other gymnast." He married four times and had countless affairs; he made millions but died in 1955 with about $5,000 to his name. But although Macfadden's life is thoroughly fascinating, "Weakness Is a Crime" often is dull reading, chiefly because Robert Ernst's flat narrative style makes much of the book read like an eighth-grade book report. Macfadden's story has to carry the day, and fortunately for the reader it does.

TIM WARREN

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