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The Wisdom in Folly
By Margaret Black

Heaven Lake
By John Dalton, 451 pages, $26

Pity poor Vincent Saunders, the protagonist of John Dalton’s new novel, Heaven Lake. He’s the latest in a long line of serenely dense, heroically naïve, culpably innocent young Americans abroad. Like his predecessors, Vincent in many ways gets precisely what he deserves, and how this happens provides a great deal of very funny high comedy. But the book’s considerable humor masks a much deeper story, one that’s a serious, nuanced account of spiritual transformation.

The scene is Taiwan and mainland China; the time is 1989, a few months after the events of Tienanmen Square. Vincent hails from the tiny Midwestern hamlet of Red Bud. He’s just graduated from college and traveled halfway around the world to the small Taiwanese city of Toulio in order to work for the Overseas Christian Fellowship. He’s a volunteer, mind you, not a missionary, a crucial distinction in Vincent’s mind. He thinks it helps demonstrate that he’s attentive to the cultural values of others, and he definitely wants to exercise all possible sensitivity as he asserts the superior understanding of life and its purpose that he’s been privileged to grow up with. The locals, of course, see no fine shadings here and instantly identify him as a standard-issue Jesus teacher.

Vincent’s mentor in Taipei has warned him that “the people of Toulio will have no particular interest in Christ or the Presbyterian faith,” that one must think in the long term, that it’s really a matter of “outlasting their ambivalence.” But perhaps, Vincent thinks, such heroic patience may not be required because he believes he may have “the ability to see deeply into other people’s lives and offer them a love and wisdom they might not even have known they were seeking.” Most readers will know by page 10 that Vincent’s going to be chewed up and spat out barely alive for his presumptions.

When Vincent succumbs to the relentless, focused assault of a precocious teenager in his English conversation class—he has to admit that her approach to sex represents a distinct improvement on the complexities of technically chaste dating back in Illinois—he stimulates the wrath of her farmer brother, who beats him nearly senseless and warns him to leave town permanently. By that time, Vincent also is at odds with a rabid new volunteer, a girl who’s perfectly willing to make scenes for Christ in public, as she announces several times before carrying out her threat. So Vincent accepts an offer made by a wealthy businessman to journey to Urumchi, the capital of China’s far western province of Xinjiang, and there to wed a divinely beautiful young woman so that he can bring her back to Taiwan, where they will divorce and the businessman will marry her. You’d think even Vincent would have suspicions about this project, and indeed, he has turned down the proposal once. But now he’s certain he’ll be killed if he stays in town, and he’s a romantic who actually credits the businessman’s tale of love. Plus the healthy sum of money he’ll earn will permit him to pay back the considerable debts that he owes to several poor, hard-working members of his family.

As Vincent travels to Hong Kong, then into China, the story changes character, becoming an ironic travelogue, with fascinating descriptions of desperate, gritty Chinese cities, bone-breaking hard-sleeper train accommodations, and miles upon miles of landscape unfailingly populated with “clusters of men and women or scattered individuals treading the roads or gaps between valleys. This, he thought, was what one billion one hundred and fifteen million people meant.” Vincent’s money-saving choice of travel by train and bus exposes him to days crossing distances so vast that they almost obliterate rational understanding, and to an accumulation of small events so nasty that they make nonsense out of any concept of meaning.

Cynical readers who believe they’re going to be able to stand in smug judgment of Vincent begin to learn in Taiwan that hilarious as his predicaments are, the readers actually understand very little more than Vincent does. Nor, if they’re honest, can they guess how he should behave, except perhaps with less priggishness and more circumspection. But by the time Vincent reaches the deserts of Western China, readers most assuredly share an equally baffled ignorance. Moreover, when Vincent gets into trouble now, it’s usually because of a generosity that we all want to believe will be rewarded. He’s so basically decent and has been so slapped about by his adventures that we’re grateful he’s given a momentary transcendent vision at Heaven Lake: “It’s an amazement, he decided. Everything that happens in life. The sky. The lake, The horses. The romping children. All wonders. All fractions of an entirety he used to think of as God, as Jesus Christ. Understanding that this new god would never speak to him the way he longed to be spoken to meant a lifetime of partial answers and shady intuitions. He would grow old and die without knowing.”

Much to author Dalton’s credit, the novel doesn’t end here. Nor do Vincent’s mistakes, misperceptions, or miseries. But by the time the story does conclude, once again in Taiwan, Vincent has waded deep into that lifetime of partial answers and shady intuitions. He not only exercises in a wholly unexpected fashion that patience recommended by his mentor, but he also fulfills his once naïve belief that he can offer love, though not necessarily wisdom, to people who don’t even know they are seeking it.

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