AN HONORABLE PROFESSION By John L'Heureux Viking. 403 pp. $19.95

THERE IS any number of reasons to admire and respect the novels of John L'Heureux, among the most important of which are their firm roots in ordinary American reality. Though L'Heureux himself took refuge in an academic position at Stanford nearly two decades ago, he remains powerfully interested in the middle-class New England world in which he was born and raised, as well as that of the Catholic Church he served for several years as an ordained priest. His fiction has a grittiness that reflects this personal history, a quality found in the work of all too few of his fellow laborers in the writing-school groves.

It is characteristic of L'Heureux that the "honorable profession" to which the title of his 13th novel refers is high-school teaching: a most unfashionable subject by prevailing literary standards, yet one that is intimately connected to the country's daily life. That the high-school teacher could serve as window on that life seems to have occurred to scarcely any other writers of fiction, yet L'Heureux's instinct to use him as such is precisely right: Inasmuch as we now expect teachers to serve in loco parentis in every sense of the term save biological, it stands to reason that imagining our way into their lives could help us understand our own.

The teacher through whom L'Heureux attempts to do this is named Miles Bannon. He lives in Malburn, "a small New England town, a bedroom community for Boston and the computer industry along Route 128," and teaches English at Malburn High. He is 35 years old, a bachelor who as the novel opens is living with his mother; she is suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease, "trapped, alive, in a dead body." Like countless others caught in such circumstances, he is torn between "knowing someone you love is in excruciating pain {and} knowing that in the end the thing you feel most is the boredom," and as her condition deteriorates he suffers from the guilt of wishing for her death, as release for himself as well as for her.

When at last she does die he gains a measure of freedom, but he is haunted by a sense of responsibility for her death. This comes between him and Margaret Cleary, the young widow with whom he may or may not be in love, a decent but troubled woman who is herself torn between dependence upon him and uncertainty about her feelings for him. At first his emotional disarray leads him in an unlikely direction -- a one-night stand with a suave homosexual -- but soon it takes him into the bed of Diane Waring, the sexy and predatory young chairman of his department.

All of which adds up to a formula for trouble, but that's only the private side of Bannon's life. As a teacher "he was popular, he was smart, he was funny," but he has the bad luck to witness a painful incident in which a shy, unconfident boy is sexually abused by bigger boys in a game called Violation; this sets off a long but scarcely improbable chain of events in which Bannon's private and public lives become so entangled as to seem inseparable. In the end he is the victim of wild rumors and the object of unsupportable accusations, and his powers of survival are tested.

As this summary of the novel's plot suggests, An Honorable Profession threatens at moments to become a catalogue of such social ills as are routinely featured on the television programs of Oprah Winfrey, Geraldo Rivera et al.: child and spouse abuse, sexual identity crises, drugs and alcohol, geriatric decline, drunk driving -- it's all there and a good bit more, and at times it comes dangerously close to excess. But what saves the novel from this is L'Heureux's lack of sentimentality, his refusal to lapse into easy, feel-good solutions. Here, for example, he describes the students' response to the death of a contemporary:

"In the corridors, girls were leaning against the lockers, sitting on the floor, hugging one another. They were sobbing, in an orgy of grief. It was luxurious. They loved it. Miles had seen this performance before and it was always the same. The girls sobbed and the boys moved silently up and down the hall, sulking, as if they were personally responsible for the death or as if they were offended that somebody else was getting all that attention just for being dead."

That's a smart and knowing observation, but L'Heureux doesn't stop at dismissing it as "a carnival of mourning"; he also understands that the kids "wanted to be deeply feeling, deeply caring people" -- especially in an age that so highly prizes touchy-feely exhibitionism -- and that "most of them were terrified at feeling nothing at all." Though it should be added that they are also terrified at the thought of their own deaths, it remains that this is a perceptive reading of the adolescent mind and of adolescent group behavior; there's a lot of this in An Honorable Profession, and it is among the novel's most rewarding qualities.

So too is L'Heureux's depiction of the teaching life. His portrait of the alliances and divisions within the teachers' room is vivid, in particular of those stirred up by a disagreeable young man who is trying to use his experiences at Malburn High as raw material for the great American novel. L'Heureux knows the teachers' world well -- he was a high-school teacher himself for a while -- and knows the tough lot they've been handed:

"How on earth was anybody supposed to teach composition? Even after all these years, {Miles} hadn't figured it out. You were dealing with a largely illiterate generation. They didn't read books. They didn't even read newspapers. They had no model for excellence other than television, where even Tom Brokaw said 'between you and I.' And Tom Brokaw was the high point of television literacy. You couldn't count MacNeil/Lehrer because students regarded MacNeil/Lehrer as a kind of punishment. It was hopeless really. It was poor old Sisyphus all over again."

But the teachers keep on keeping on, just as Miles Bannon struggles on against the various forces mustered against him. An Honorable Profession is a novel about survival both personal and professional, not merely that but survival with dignity and self-respect. It is itself an honorable novel.