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Heaven Lake by John Dalton


Rating: (Mildly Recommended)


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If you’re looking for another coming of age debut novel, you may want to look at John Dalton’s Heaven Lake. Protagonist Vincent Saunders leaves rural Illinois for missionary work in Taiwan. Before long, Vincent loses his innocence, embarks on a journey across China to help a friend bring a bride to Taiwan, and learns this lesson: “It’s a grayer, more complicated world than I ever imagined.” (p. 227).  If like me, you’ve become too cynical to appreciate that naïve discovery, you may find the 450+ pages of this novel a bit too much to bear. Here’s an excerpt, all of Chapter 16, pp. 192-198:


A muddied seagull lighting down on a pantiled roof. . . a tangle of bicycle frames strapped like a teetering crown to the cab of a market van. . . an iron kettle thrust from a third-floor window and raining water onto a box of blue and white azaleas. These were fractional glimpses the Mainland, and Vincent could only view them by leveraging his foot to the rail and straining up off the oak-board dock. He stood a vexing’~ twenty yards from Guangzhou proper, from the heavy yellow swing i that would mark his official entrance into the People’s Republic of China. Behind him the Tianhu lay moored to the paved bank of the Pearl River.

First, however, he was obliged to enter a harborside office, present his visa and declarations form, and place his bag on a long viewing table before three tight-jawed and brooding customs officials. One unfastened the zipper, reached inside, and gave the contents a bored squeeze. Vincent looked on, keenly aware that he was dealing with communists. Communists, communism, commies, he thought and sealed his lips, anxious that he might speak these words aloud. In his mind’s eye he pictured a nation of people in drab gray Mao jackets, a charcoal, ruinous sky punctured by fuming smokestacks.

Yet once cleared and through the swing gate, he was reminded that F -had arrived in Guangzhou on a brilliant spring day, a Sunday morning that found the citizens out en masse and filing across the Pearl River along a white stone bridge. The sunlit clarity of their procession sparked giddy, ridiculous thrill, an apprehension that he, Vincent Saunders, had landed in China. Briefly, his own arrival seemed valiant, exotic, somehow historic in scope, and he fell in line and moved toward the city’s southern bank, where the band of hundreds pouring off the bridge mixed with thousands of others already milling along the canals and market streets of Shamian Island. As he walked, he let his fingers descend to the plain of F abdomen and graze his money belt two shirts deep, thick with traveler’s checks and passport.

The crowd buckled and swayed. A small girl in cloth slippers, a toddler, stepped out of her bamboo stroller and scuttled back to an asphalt abutment. At her parents’ insistence, she squatted down and, through cot­ton pajamas slit open from zipper to rear seam, peed a warm runnel of urine onto the cobblestone sidewalk. She stood and marked its progress as it wound between stones and disappeared into a sewer grate. Vincent saw her flash a smile of tiny pearled teeth.

Unexpected as this was, it was not quite surprising enough. He was ready to be more thoroughly appalled or delighted, ready for the nation of China to define itself in some bold, heart-stopping spectacle. But so far Guangzhou remained ordinary in its fumy haze of motorbike and truck exhaust, its shrill clamor of traffic horns and keening brakes. The same peculiar odor he had noticed in nearly all Chinese cities and towns—part congealed cooking grease, part septic and subterranean—was present here, though stronger and more pervasive. Like Hong Kong, the streets were a veritable marketplace of bargain-rate commodities: latex thongs, great-bellied plaster Buddhas, laminated photos of Asian music stars, toys and carry bags all shoddily made and adorned with emblems and cartoon figures pilfered from the West. Often the vendors were bone-thin and swarthy-skinned; some actually wore blue or olive green caps and Mao jackets. A few had unfurled tattered handkerchiefs onto the sidewalk and presided over a tiny free-market inventory of candle ends, a polished door latch, a secondhand plumbing fixture.

None of these items interested Vincent personally, though he might have purchased something, a door latch, maybe, out of atonement, out of simple gratitude for being himself and not an indigent street vendor. But this would require an exchange of currency, of which there were two vari­eties: renminbi, otherwise known as people’s money, and Foreign Exchange Certificates, which the Chinese sometimes called tourist money. He had arrived with Foreign Exchange Certificates. Even though he tendered these certificates with a patient hand, they were shunned by a street chef serving up breakfasts of peanuts and steamed buns. Another patron eyed his cer­tificates and barked out an unintelligible question. Was it Cantonese or slurred Mandarin? He was not sure which, but as he needled through the market crowd, he was solicited, frequently, with the same blustery and muddled request.

Alec had told him—warned him—that in the matter of changing money it was best not to relinquish a bill until the changer had handed over its equivalent in renminbi. With this in mind, he held back and appraised each candidate, searching for the money changer least likely to try a swindle or lunging retreat. An elderly woman tottered forward, hin­dered by an arthritic limp. Her ashen hair was short-cropped and bristly, her rheumy eyes underscored by fat swells of pouched skin. “Chain geh money:’ she whispered in English.

He traded a crisp ten-yuan Foreign Exchange Certificate for thirteen yuan in renminbi, an apparent bargain, though the bills she returned were frayed and tissue-thin. Afterward, he opened his travel guide and consulted exchange rates. The old woman had not slighted him. More surprising yet, he learned that he had just made his first transaction on the Chinese black market. To celebrate, he purchased a bag of peanuts, then strolled along cracking their rough shells in his fist. Now and then he grinned and fancied himself mixing with the underworld.



For the time being, he thought it best to trail behind a scattering of other Caucasian tourists, most of them college-aged and saddled with nylon backpacks, in hopes that they would lead him to a moderately priced hotel. And eventually they did. But the news at the Overseas Chinese Hotel was discouraging. “No vacancies whatsoever:’ a young woman in a Boston University T-shirt announced to Vincent and a group of her companions’ waiting in the hotel lobby. He followed them several blocks to another hotel, where the same young woman entered and returned with a bleaker announcement. “Everything in Guangzhou is booked solid through the fifteenth of May:’ she said. “Some kind of export-business fair. The only; rooms are outside the city.” Her friends groaned and cursed, though the same news that spurred their frustration buoyed Vincent and caused him to improvise an alternate plan. It was not imperative that he stay overnight and tour the sights of Guangzhou. The city could be skipped over, dismissed, and he could head northwest to Guilin by train. From there be could take a bus to the much-praised town of Yangshuo, the site of his eventual rendezvous with Alec.

He set out for the Guangzhou train station along a bustling north, bound avenue. At nine A.M. its cobbled promenades were still sloped in cool morning shadows. He did not mind the walking. In time he came to a demarcating intersection where the apartment houses and storefronts dropped away. Across the lane stood a grove of high sycamores. This, according to his guidebook, was a verdant corner of the enormous Yuexiu Park. He hurried forth, ready to embark on one of its winding pathways.

Halfway through the intersection, he felt a tug on the waistband of his blue jeans and looked down to discover that he had been joined by a pair of children, a boy possibly ten or eleven on his right, and on his left, a younger girl, who had pried her reedy fingers beneath the strap of his leather belt. For a moment he thought they wanted nothing more than to tug him inside the park and guide him eagerly toward a monument or pagoda, a sun-dappled fishpond he might otherwise have missed. But they were dressed in ragged clothes and tapping their chests and then knotting their free hands into cupped fists. Clearly they were not impetu­ous tour guides. They wanted, or rather demanded, money, and Vincent, secretly belted with a fortune in traveler’s checks, was happy to give them some. He reached into his pocket and rewarded each child with a one-yuan bill. These were snatched away and stowed inside some secret fold of their clothing. Then, both at once, they thrust their small hands into his front and back pockets and claimed his remaining ten or eleven yuan in renminbi. Digging deeper still, they managed to ferret out a paper receipt from the Tianhu and a cloth handkerchief, which the boy shook open and tossed to the ground.

Together, the three of them had become a spectacle; he was sure of this, but when he gaped around at the throng of people lining the park entrance, he saw only a scowl from an elderly man raking the grass with his bamboo cane, a slit-mouthed hiss from a tousled mother holding a swaddled infant. The children, meanwhile, had begun to pry at the zip­pers of his shoulder bag. He tried a bolting escape, and they clenched his belt with both hands and shambled after him. He tried gathering their small hands in each of his own, squeezing their fingers, holding them at a distance, and then sprinting away. Yet they were quick to recover and dive for his belt. After several attempts he decided, finally, that to be successful he would have to grab one of them, most likely the boy, and throw him hard against the ground—a viable plan, perhaps, but as a public act it would be nothing less than appalling.

A jaunty young man in a starched shirt and pin-striped trousers strode by. In his raised fist he wielded a magazine rolled into a blunt, glossy club, and as he strolled past, he brought it down full-tilt, vehe­mently, first onto the boy’s head and then onto the girl’s. They both pressed their foreheads into Vincent’s hips and cringed beneath the blow, and the young man hurried on, tapping his wristwatch to show this quick assault was all he had time for. The children clung to Vincent’s belt gritty-fingered and dazed, and now the tousled mother reappeared, shouldering her baby and shrieking, cursing the children, he assumed, until he recog­nized a word, a phrase, the purpose beneath her shriek: “Stay on him! Stay on him! Stay on him!” she screamed.

Panicked, he lurched forward and entered Yuexiu Park. He feared the woman would latch on to him as well, but she was content to scuttle behind hissing, coaching the children, imploring them not to let go. He spotted a stone bench littered with food wrappers and led them all toward it and slumped down thinking that perhaps he was being mugged, mugged pub­licly by children.

Hunched over, travel bag shielded in his lap, he decided to wait them out. The boy and girl appeared relieved to take seats on either side of him. In other circumstances they might have been sweet-featured or even beautiful children, yet slouched against each of his shoulders their faces seemed patently slack and wearied, grim as those of weathered old men. The woman hovered over all of them, a doughy sneer, a mop of bedrag­gled hair. All Vincent could see of her baby was one exposed leg jutting from the swaddled blanket. She jeered instructions and the children wedged their arms between his bag and stomach. They located his money belt and groped its fat corners, though luckily they could not work their fingers beneath his shirts to pry at its zipper.

He watched a steady flux of Sunday strollers mill by on their way to a line of park vendors whose carts were laden with packaged candies, fruit drinks, warm Coca-Cola.

He was struck suddenly by a provisional hope. He turned and considered the girl, a spindly child, unquestionably the weaker of the pair. “Little sister,” he said. The false tenor of the endearment pained him. “Don’t, worry, don’t be afraid,” he said and slipped his hands under her arms and wiggled his fingers along her rib cage and down to her small hips. She writhed about, pedaling her skinny legs, tossing her head from side to side, doing everything appropriate to being tickled, except, of course, laughing. He could feel a wad of bills knotted beneath the hem of her pants. He could see them half pinched into the elastic band of her underwear, and here he paused, aggrieved at how unpleasant the situation bad become and how shameful the remedy.

With a single hooked index finger, he swiped his hand inside the band of her underwear and plucked out a one-yuan bill. He set off at once toward the vending carts, towing the children behind him. Bellied tight to the glass case, he handed over his money and ordered two cans of Coca-Cola. Three paces behind, the woman let out a raucous shriek.

He popped the rings and offered them to the children. “Go ahead:’ he said. “Go ahead. It’s all right. I know  you’re thirsty.”

They craned their heads up at him, stunned and suspicious.

“Go ahead:’ he said. “Please, it’s all right:’ and they took the cans into their gritty hands, hearing the woman shriek and knowing they should not.

The rest was surprisingly easy. They each gripped his belt with a single hand, and he batted these away and stepped back to the walkway, where the crowd was thick and idled along with a blithe, unmindful ease. Out­side the park entrance he searched for a taxi, and found instead a young man offering cut-rate fares for a ride on the back of his motor scooter. “Train station:’ Vincent said and swung a leg across the cushioned seat.

“But you can’t leave yet:” the young man said. “You haven’t seen all the sights of Yuexiu Park. The Five Rams. The Sun Yat-sen Memorial. The Zhenhai Tower. I can drive you round to each one?’

“Already seen them:’ Vincent said, scanning the sidewalk for the chil­dren and the tousled mother.

“The Hall of Flowers, you’ve seen that?”

“Oh yes, I’ve seen them all and they were all very nice. Especially the flowers, all very beautiful. And now I’m ready to leave:’ he said. “I’ve seen enough?’



At the Guangzhou rail station he was one in a frantic logjam of bodies straining, shoving, elbowing his way to the front counter, where he asked for sleeping-berth passage and was granted a hard-seat ticket instead. Five hours later, when his train to Guilin began to board, he became part of yet another crushing herd of travelers pressing out onto the platform and up the train’s iron foot rungs and through several sections of sleeping berths. The lucky among them tumbled covetously into their reserved bunks. Goaded on from one compartment to another, he came at last to a car of rowed seats and located his own, hard seat number 16, a window-side bench.

A short while later the train lumbered forward a few hundred yards and came to a sudden halt. There it sat, well in sight of the station, for another two hours. By then much of the day’s radiance had been lost. An early evening stillness spread across the rail yard. All over Guangzhou people were sauntering home to bountiful Sunday dinners, or so he imagined.

Beside him, a squat, barrel-chested man studied Vincent with a fasci­nation that did not diminish, even as the train finally sprang into motion and rumbled north through the city’s scattered outer districts. The man’s stained coveralls stank of petroleum and ash. Now and then he whispered in Cantonese, and several times he pointed to the fanning bruises beneath Vincent’s sunglasses.

What a nuisance, these bruises. If they were not making him feel leprous, then they were provoking all sorts of unwelcome attention.

But the man’s interest only grew sharper. He mumbled and shook his bushy head as if rehearsing a complicated lecture. Then he turned and addressed Vincent, this time in accented Mandarin. They spoke Man­darin differently here, with a windy inflection, with mouthfuls of sibilant consonants. Slowly, directly, the man repeated himself. “Why did your boss beat you?” he asked.

Vincent weighed the question. There was no reason to lie, and yet a full disclosure would be exhausting, humiliating. “I was spending time alone with his sister:’ he said. “I shouldn’t have been doing that?’

The man’s dark eyes flickered sympathetically. “Yes, yes, that’s always the way it is. You’re good enough to do sweat work six days a week, but not good enough to take a private walk with the boss’s sister. Am I right?”

“Yes:’ Vincent said. “You are.”

“I thought I was. I thought I had your story right:’ he said and, satis­fied, eased back into his seat.

Before long they were rolling beneath a lavender twilight. The car swayed and bounced on its speeding undercarriage. Somewhere behind, in the thicket of standing passengers, a child wailed. The compartment lights would dim and waver and return to full strength. With his eyes closed, the shuddering lights made his mind unreel in a flood of dis­jointed imagery. He slept only for minutes at a time. In his dreams, small, gritty-fingered hands reached out to seize him.

Dalton describes scenes with an artist’s eye. His comic scenes, like the excerpt, provide moments for chuckling. For readers willing to allow self-discovery to emerge for a late adolescent over the course of more than 450 pages, Heaven Lake is the perfect novel.

Steve Hopkins, September 25, 2004


ã 2004 Hopkins and Company, LLC


The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the October 2004 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: Lake.htm


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