Heaven Lake, 2004
Winner of the 2004 Barnes and Noble Discover Award in Fiction
Winner of the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters
When Vincent Saunders — fresh out of college in the States — arrives in Taiwan as a Christian volunteer and English teacher, he meets a wealthy Taiwanese businessman who wishes to marry a young woman living in China near Heaven Lake but is thwarted by political conflict. Mr. Gwa wonders: In exchange for money, will Vincent travel to China, take part in a counterfeit marriage, and bring the woman back to Taiwan for Gwa to marry legitimately? Believing that marriage is a sacrament, Vincent says no.
Soon, though, everything Vincent understands about himself and his vocation in Taiwan changes. A complicated friendship with one of the high-school girls he teaches sends him on a path toward spiritual reckoning. It also causes him to reconsider Gwa's extraordinary proposition. What follows is not just an exhilarating — sometimes harrowing — journey to a remote city in China, but an exploration of love, loneliness, and the nature of faith.
In his spacious first novel, Dalton tackles the sentimental education of Vincent Saunders, a young Christian missionary who leaves Red Bud, Ill., to teach English and spread the word of God in the exotic, slightly sinister Taiwanese city of Toulio, where he and Alec, a surly stoner, are the only Westerners. The beginning of this old-fashioned story is, like its protagonist, modest and without frills. After eccentric businessman Mr. Gwa offers Vincent $10,000 to travel to a remote Chinese province to collect a young beauty he’s long fancied, the book blossoms into an unexpectedly satisfying saga. Vincent’s trials attest to an enduring truth: No one of any faith can lay claim to genuine spiritual knowledge without journeying both into the heart of his frail human self and out into the damaged world.
First novels tend to ramble. They are notorious for gathering too many half-drawn characters into their fold and weaving them through countless subplots. On first inspection, John Dalton’s heavily hyped debut appears to follow suit: Rambling is central to the story’s narrative, which follows a young protagonist thousands of miles across modern-day China and teems with eccentric side characters. But in a masterful stroke, Dalton pulls off his harrowing, culture-cruising epic by deftly plotting the transformations of a journeying mind….Dalton’s account is precise and vivid, only rarely resorting to stereotype. What’s more, he manages to trace Saunders’s developments in subtly unfolding changes. If the author’s chief shortcoming is a predilection for atavistic language, we can forgive him. Heaven Lake resonates with the weight of something rare and remarkable.
Time Out New York
Sober and searching yet sublimely comic, this impressive debut about a modern-day missionary in Taiwan charts a journey away from reflexive faith and toward a broader understanding of the world and its ways. Artfully pacing the series of revelations that rock the book on its way to a surprising conclusion, Dalton revises conventional assumptions about contemporary China and collective cultural views of love and marriage. This is a noteworthy first novel by a writer to watch.
"Heaven Lake," the impressive debut novel by John Dalton…is a beguiling story, told with comic flair. Ultimately, "Heaven Lake" offers a touching meditation on the vagaries of love. Dalton has an intoxicating ability to infuse simple scenes with considerable depth of human emotion. His characters are richly drawn. His throwaway references are delicate and revealing. In the end, "Heaven Lake" is a winning novel for the way that Dalton lets his characters fumble and survive moments of choice in a wobbly manner that is recognizably human.
The book took Dalton eight years to complete, and one can see this in every sentence set down, though not in a labored fashion. At the heart of the novel is Dalton’s portrait of Vincent, a young man of feckless honesty and earnest goodwill, so self-conscious that he often describes himself, and is otherwise described, as fretful. Yet, he’s not so much fretful as self-scrutinizing to the point of self-deprecation. Certainly, Vincent has much to be fretful, if not ashamed, about, but the novel as much as anything shows how possible it is to sometimes outlive one’s mistakes. There’s a certain grace and dignity in that, Vincent learns, despite the fact that he tries and fails to serve two masters, first Jesus and then Gwa. Still, by the end of the novel, Vincent has summoned up a remarkable store of personal courage and compassion to set his compass straight and come to some appreciation, if not understanding, of the mysteries of human yearning.
Dalton’s debut novel is the evocative, beautiful exploration of modern-day China, seen through the eyes of a young Christian volunteer named Vincent, who travels to Toulio, a small town in Taiwan, to teach English and Bible-study classes. Powerful and rewarding reading.
Who in this literary day and age would dare to wonder what keeps us whole in the absence of God without wrapping the question in narrative tricks? But [Dalton] has mastered the art of arriving at the universal through finely drawn particulars: schoolgirls with a comically touching affinity for E.T., or an inscrutable landlady who confesses to a love of Huckleberry Finn. Serious readers who still believe in straightforward stories well told will find themselves entranced by this humbly omniscient narrator who unabashedly loves and respects his characters.
[Dalton] has written a novel that lets American readers travel thousands of miles to a foreign culture yet still recognize their own sensibilities in a main character who has taken the same journey. For a novelist, "Heaven Lake" is a great place to start; for readers, it is a terrific place to end up.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Impeccably written . . .a thorough work of operatic feeling and proportion. . . stunning.
San Francisco Chronicle
A sweeping, soul-satisfying debut
The Miami Herald
There are debuts and there DEBUTS . . . sweeping in scope, well plotted and filled with intricately drawn scenes and characters . . . superbly written. One can enjoy Dalton’s book on several levels.
Greensboro News and Record