By Gene Lyons
August 27, 1993 at 04:00 AM EDT

There’s no military draft anymore, and most of us manage to avoid prison, so the one remaining universally unpleasant memory shared by almost everybody is high school. Indeed, it has become almost axiomatic in American culture, as author Thomas French insists in South of Heaven, that high school is ”a place that none of us ever escapes, no matter how long ago we left it.” Intense though the experience can be, it also passes in an instant, leaving young psyches ample time to heal. What’s more, nobody can be forced to do it twice. In fact, one of the finest moments in St. Petersburg Times reporter French’s vivid narrative of a year spent prowling the hallways of Largo High School in Pinellas County, Fla., comes when a compassionate English teacher gives her senior students ”the speech.” Herself a cancer survivor, she cautions them not to waste their lives striving for abstract goals and neglecting to honor their passions. ”You’ve got to live your life,” she insists, ”because you only have one, and you don’t know from day to day. You don’t know. And you can’t take it for granted.”

No, you don’t know. Hardly a thing at that age, despite the superficial knowingness exhibited by so many Largo High kids — strivers, slackers, and downright screwups alike — who allowed French into their classrooms, their homes, and, in some cases, their innermost secrets. Wonderfully detailed and absolutely convincing in its portraits of individual students and teachers, South of Heaven focuses close attention upon five students in particular — from a ”popular” overachiever to a spaced-out freshman with serious emotional problems.

Although he avoids the typecasting — the Jock, the Prom Queen, the Stoner, the Nerd — so prevalent in books and films dealing with high school, French does occasionally let his rhetoric run away with him. But that’s a cavil in view of the brilliant job of reporting he has done, illuminating the lives of ordinary American kids and their parents at what’s — all kidding aside — a wondrously confusing, difficult, and, yes, crucial time in their lives. B+