Our culture is permeated by images and accounts of death, but they are only fictions, works of the imagination, counterfeits. The real thing is carefully hidden ...

"The Forbidden Zone" is not a pleasant read. You go to an autopsy. You visit an undertaker's workroom. You kill a cow in a slaughterhouse, sit in an electric chair, drive around with a homicide detective. You talk to the people who clean up after the human race, who dip their hands every day in what the rest of us would like to ignore so thoroughly it goes away.

Michael Lesy writes: "In America, those who deal with the dead have social identities that shift back and forth ... Sometimes they look like pariahs and deviants, sometimes like charlatans. Other times they look like heroes or even adepts, initiates, and priests."

And even they, the author discovers, have their ways of not really facing what they are looking at.

"I asked him about being a warden," Lesy recalls in his account of meeting the official in charge of a Georgia death row. "What did it take; what was it all about?

" 'Cutouts,' he said.

"... Since there is no holy law to protect them, prison officials rely on a system of divided responsibilities. Procedures are so fragmented that no single person remains responsible. All actions are mediated by others or shared with others. Everything is done by administrative decree and court order, conveyed from person to person, down a chain of command and obedience: 'I-did-what-I-did-because-he-did-what-he- did.' "

Lesy found that almost every one of the dealers in death that he met had a cutout. The supervisor of death row never went into the execution room, never even spoke the words "electric chair." The people running an AIDS hospice kept seeing the ghosts of their patients, in a way denying their deaths. Pathologists and cops and undertakers have their own jargons, their jokes, distancing them from the things they see.

"To protect themselves from what they do," Lesy writes, "all of these men construct personas whose hands and faces they wear like masks and gloves. Police sharpshooters carry themselves like hunters; mercenaries consider themselves warriors; some homicide detectives behave like cynics, others like avengers; pathologists pretend to be men working on a puzzle. Just as the Germans who exterminated the Jews used language rules in their documents, referring to 'transport and resettlement,' so these men, speaking through their masks, refer to 'posts,' targets and stiffs."

He put it this way: "The cutout is like the shield that keeps us from seeing the Gorgon's head."

All of us have cutouts, Lesy said, and if we can break through them, if we can be "alive and present," that is what makes us true men and women. You could believe that "The Forbidden Zone" is Lesy's attempt to break through his own cutouts about death and dying. Maybe his other books were, too.

The author flew up from Atlanta the other day to talk about his work. He appeared in shirt sleeves, with a backpack and a fresh haircut. He wears dark glasses outdoors because his left eye was damaged in a highway accident and it is like looking through cobwebs, which is hard for a man who once flipped through 70,000 photos at Archives.

One of his books, "Wisconsin Death Trip," became an oversized paperback in 1973 and made it big. Like the rest of his early books, it consisted of old photos and other people's words. It was about a death obsession that gripped an entire region in hard times. Even in "Time Frames," 1980, an oral history built around family snapshots, the chapter headings are pictures of tombstones.

"The Forbidden Zone" is the first book in which Lesy himself appears, and it is as much about his reactions to all this killing and carving up and examining the remains as it is about death itself.

"I mean, look. When it happened, when I saw that stuff, I felt proud of myself, that I didn't throw up. But it's like going to Europe -- you see Venice and Milan and the Prado and whatever, and you come home and get off the plane ... and you're still who you were. I think I'd be a real fool to say I know more than I did."

He paused to consider what he had just said. He likes to sum up. "You don't know what you know," he said slowly, "until you have to act."

He does think he became a kinder person in the months he spent interviewing professional soldiers and Orthodox ritual slaughterers, reading books on death and dying, talking to people like Robert Jay Lifton, the Holocaust authority.

The Holocaust is a hidden agenda in Lesy's work. He is sharply aware of it. Though his father came to America in 1921, Lesy lost many relatives to the Nazis, and the ovens and death camps seem just below the surface of his writings, in the analogies and passing references. "Wisconsin Death Trip" he describes as a Holocaust without Jews.

"I discovered everyone's at risk," he said, "though it's true, Jews seem to have a certain kind of double jeopardy." After all, they remembered the fiery furnace of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego when the Germans, if there were any, were still wearing bearskins.

People have called him morbid, but the way he looks at it, he is simply trying to become a complete man.

"Death comes with being human," he said. "It's the nature of the life of the species on the planet. Do we know all that it means to be human, or are there other races on the planet, or other definitions of being human, or other forms of impersonation? The same people who create symphonies become bellicose and decimate the continent of Europe -- the same people."

The American denial of death must be related, he thinks, to the images of killing, dismemberment and mayhem we see on the screen, "every death followed by commercials that, like antidotes, promise health, happiness and unencumbered freedom."

"Everyone knows the stuff on the tube is inauthentic. We all understand it's all an artifice. We live among reflections, like the people in Plato's cave. The authentic stuff, the pleasure or pain, is still distant from us.

"It's not just that we're removed from death, but we're also removed from real compassion, real knowledge, real contradictions. We're removed from it all. The most important things, true pleasure, true loss, are removed."

It's a class thing, he said. "You want authentic experience, there's plenty of it right here in Washington. Just be black and unemployed."

Lesy is 41, is married and has a daughter 11 and a son 8. He lives in Atlanta, has a small office in a converted schoolhouse, an artists' collective where he can stare at a brick wall and think about what he is thinking about. He wanted to be a doctor at first, like his father. Then he decided to be a historian, earned a doctorate, taught at Yale and, when he got into photography as historical document, at the Art Institute of Chicago.

When he smiles, which is not often, it is a pleasure and a relief to see. You want him to smile.

He worries about his father, who is 87 and apparently on the edge of death. This was one of the themes of "The Forbidden Zone," stimulating the writer to think about his own mortality. "You realize at age 40 you're not gonna live forever," he said. "My damaged eye was another hidden agenda in the book. I didn't write about it, but my eyes are extremely important to me, a channel into my mind."

When his wife read the book, this odyssey of a character named Michael Lesy, she would stare at him and say, "Is this you? You're different." And he would say, "Yeah, it's me." And it was, part of him anyway.

"It's me on the tapes," he said, "it's my voice, I did all those things, and it wasn't like I got a lot of money, it wasn't for the money, it was for the knowledge, I suppose. I still think I learned something."

If you know how to live, he said, you know how to die. No one can tell who will do what when it comes down to it. He wants to write a book about the biblical "36 hidden saints," the Just Men (and Women), the obscure, true heroes upon whom the very existence of the world depends, so it is said. He wants to find one of these heroes, whether it be a Carnegie Medal winner or someone whose heroism was to raise a family in a burned-out slum, and maybe he won't even know when he finds the person. "But they know. Most of the time. They know who they are." At least he can write about his search.

Michael Lesy wonders if he is like the canary in the mine who detects the bad air first, for he sees an era ending with the AIDS epidemic, a 40-year hiatus when history didn't thrust death in our faces. All that fictional carnage on TV and film, the picture-puzzle murders, the car crashes and beheadings and bombings, none of it has had anything to do with our real lives, but now, he says, the other shoe is about to drop. Death as mere plot device will no longer be acceptable.

He wonders if the soul resides in the body at all or if it is something else, an aura perhaps. "Maybe I was asking the wrong questions. You knock on a tree, maybe it's just wood. I don't know."

"You want answers?" he said, "I don't have the answers. I'm just a schlemiel, just a guy sitting here. I did certain things, but as far as talking to the archangel Gabriel, I didn't get a chance. I don't think I'm ready for the archangel Gabriel yet anyway.