Michael Lesy grew up Jewish in a Protestant prep school where compulsory chapel tortured the freshly bar mitzvahed adolescent with questions of his own blasphemy. Even hymns posed problems. Was lip syncing enough to keep him out of hell? Guilt ridden, he came alive to the lyrics of "Once to Every Man and Nation." Here was his challenge: would he ever, at the crucial moment, choose the right? Did he have what it took to be a hero? Lesy is now in his 40s, but those chapel-forged questions linger on, as he admits in "Rescues: The Lives of Heroes" (Farrar Straus Giroux. $18.95), a meditation on heroism's guises and a search for its sources.
Of Lesy's nine subjects, two are Congressional Medal of Honor winners. But even those who did not stave off North Korean hordes or race into burning buildings leave us awestruck. They range from a '60s civil-rights worker who risked death every time he drove alone down a Mississippi highway to a couple who have shaped their life to accommodate their autistic son.
These are thrilling stories and told well, but Lesy is only mildly interested in the wow factor. He wants to find the roots of altruism. Along the way, he demolishes pop culture's notion of heroes as icons who "reach down and help the fallen, not because they have to. but because of duty and noblesse oblige." Lesy's subjects are inspiring precisely because for the most part they are so ordinary. While all are intelligent, none of them gets much past the man's-gotta-do-what-a-man's-gotta-do rationale. Moreover, they don't seem perturbed when they can't explain where their bravery comes from. They are at ease with the mystery. Why's that?
It's the one thing Lesy doesn't try to explain. Mysteries make him fidget. He is only comfortable when teasing out the psychological sources of heroism. His pet theory is that these people are not reaching down to help, like lifeguards, but reaching up, like atoning sinners; the act of heroism rescues the hero as much as it saves the victim. This is plausible but too pat, and condescending in the bargain: Lesy's homiletics treat life as though it were merely grist for parables. Heroes deserve better.