John Dalton's debut novel, Heaven Lake, is an ambitious compilation of a coming-of-age tale, a travelogue, and a probe into the role of fate in individual destiny.

Recent college graduate Vincent Saunders leaves his small Illinois town to serve as a missionary in Taiwan. He manages to convert one of his rooming house boarders, but strikes out with the other, a Scot with a fondness for both smuggling and smoking hashish. Vincent's troubles begin when he moves to his own rent-free ministry house in the small town of Toulio. For extra cash, he teaches English to small groups, including a class of high school girls; his brief, guilt-ridden affair with one student leads to his brutal beating, and the need for his immediate departure. Consequently, Vincent takes up the offer of the wealthy Mr. Gwa to travel to the mainland, marry Kai-Ling, the young girl he covets, return with her to Taiwan, and then divorce her, leaving Gwa free to marry her himself. Travel restrictions prevent Gwa from carrying out his dream, and he is willing to pay Vincent $10,000 to do it for him.

Vincent sets out on a half-year odyssey to the northwest corner of China a journey proving to be as personally fulfilling as it is culturally and geographically edifying. He endures countless delays and endless train rides, but gradually realizes this adventure might actually become "the one exceptional undertaking of his life." He begins to soak in every detail, from the vast tenements of Lanzhou to the indescribable beauty of Heaven Lake, in the mountains near the home of his bride-to-be. He deals with corrupt ticket-hawkers, thieves, and eventually the duplicitous Kai-Ling, who can't seem to decide whether to marry Vincent or not.

Like Vincent, Dalton spent several years in Taiwan, where he gained insight into the Chinese habits and mores he perceptively infuses into his vivid characters. After adding his ruminations on marriage, commitment, and self-enlightenment, the end result is this auspicious and compelling first novel. Deborah Donovan writes from Cincinnati and La Veta, Colorado.

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