(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Heaven Lake, John Dalton's first novel, spans a critical year in the life of the protagonist, Vincent Saunders, a self-righteous young man from Red Bud, Illinois, the only member of his family to graduate from college. Although his family has urged him to remain in the United States, he volunteers for the Overseas Christian Fellowship in Taiwan because he believes “he might 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.” His pious mouthings are somewhat off-putting, and he seems an insufferable prig.

In reality he is “a sexually fulfilled virgin” whose college sweetheart permitted everything but actual intercourse, and whom he easily left behind when it was time to go. Vincent is posted to the small city of Toulio, Taiwan, to establish a new Presbyterian ministry, where he is met by the grotesquely crippled Shao-fei Chen, for he will rent a room from Shao-fei's mother. Because the boy keeps a bizarre photo album of his dead father, Vincent suspects that he must be searching for God and attempts to convert him.

Vincent's fellow boarder is the dour Alec McGowan, a Scot who teaches English to Taiwanese businessmen and is a heavy smoker of hashish. Moody, mercurial, far more worldly than Vincent, Alec is particularly touchy when mistaken for an Englishman. When Alec returns from a vacation in India, Vincent is disgusted to find that he is smuggling hashish and thinks he should suffer. Here Vincent loses Shao-fei, who refuses to pray with him for Alec.

Phoning from Taipei, Vincent's superior, the Reverend Laurence Phillips, warns him of difficulties that he may experience, advising sincerity and patience to win over the townspeople. Ironically, Vincent does not even have enough patience to practice writing difficult Chinese ideograms. Also through Reverend Phillips's intercession, Vincent meets Mrs. Liang. Although a Buddhist, she is eager to help them because her husband is a Christian convert. She permits Vincent to use her empty family home rent-free as a ministry house, and he moves in. Then, eager to convert the Chinese, he posts flyers advertising free English lessons as an enticement, followed by an hour of Bible study, his true purpose.

During the second lesson, Mr. Gwa, a businessman, appears on the pretext of having his chauffeur learn more English, but Gwa soon requests a private lesson. On the evening of their meeting, Gwa takes Vincent to an expensive nightclub and then to a brothel. Once Vincent realizes where he is, he is not amused. Although he first refuses Gwa's payment, he eventually pockets the money. Shortly thereafter, Gwa insists on cooking dinner for Vincent in order to make him a proposition. On a previous trip to the mainland, Gwa, who owns factories in both Taiwan and mainland China, visited Xinjiang Province and the legendary Heaven Lake. There he was smitten by the beauty of a young woman, Kai-ling Song. He wants to marry her, but for political reasons Taiwanese are not yet allowed to marry mainland Chinese. Gwa suggests that the American could marry Kai-ling, bring her through Hong Kong to Taiwan, and then divorce her so that Gwa could marry her. He offers Vincent ten thousand American dollars for this service. Vincent refuses, and they part in anger.

A letter from Reverend Phillips informs Vincent that another volunteer, Gloria Hamilton, will join him at the ministry. When Gloria, filled with fervor and zeal, arrives from a Bible college in Nebraska, Vincent discovers they are clearly mismatched. However, one's teaching skills complement the other's, as Vincent is a fluent speaker of Mandarin, having studied it at the university, but he cannot write it well. Gloria can read it and is an expert calligrapher, although her spoken Chinese is pitiful. Moreover, Gloria has plans. She wants to spread the Gospel to adolescents through the Christian graphic novels she would create. She also thinks that home missionary visits, like those of the Mormons, would be effective. Vincent is aghast; he feels superior to missionaries, believing that volunteers like himself are “less intrusive.” Although he tries to dissuade Gloria, he is forced to accompany her door-to-door to proselytize and publicize their lessons. Gloria's experiment proves disastrous, and feelings between them become even more strained.

When Vincent is hired to teach an exclusive English class of teenage girls at a private academy, one student, who calls herself Trudy, boldly asks to be his girlfriend. Her fellow students hastily explain that she has “a...

(The entire section is 1872 words.)