f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Guest Speaker: Day 2 of <em>Heaven Lake</em>

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Guest Speaker: Day 2 of Heaven Lake

Alan is back with Day 2 of his look at Heaven Lake. Just a brief warning if you're dead-set on reading the book, this one gets more into the specifics of plot. If you want your reading to be completely fresh, come back after you've read it.

Where Have You Gone, Reverend Casy?

The first one hundred or so pages of Heaven Lake present Vincent as a young man on a mission (literally, as he arrives in Taiwan to start a ministry house). Dalton pulls off a trick worthy of applause when he portrays all of his early characters—saints and sinners—in very real, human terms. Unlike some ABA novels, the Christian characters are neither mentally unbalanced nor flaming hypocrites. They are real human beings, presented sympathetically with both strengths and weaknesses in abundance. They’re normal, recognizable believers, and the everyday Christian mixture of hope and doubt is nicely illustrated. At the same time, the unbelievers can also be drawn realistically, because we’re in the ABA market. So we meet Alec, a self-confident, hash-smoking, world traveler who exercises his sharp wit and profane vocabulary to our missionary hero’s great discomfort. Vincent’s internal struggle to “love the sinner and hate the sin” during his early days in Taiwan struck me as both poignant and accurate.

At that point in my reading, I emailed Dave, rhapsodizing. A few pages farther on, I got a rude awakening from this engrossing “fictional dream.”

Having been forewarned by the blurbs on the back cover, I was expecting a turning away from Christianity. As a reader, I’m okay with that—it’s part of the human experience and it’s one facet of the great “dialogue of faith” Dave endorses in these pages. And, given the skill of the writer and the painstaking setup of the main character as a fervent, deeply committed believer, I anticipated an intense story about one man’s journey from belief to unapologetic atheism.

Vincent does indeed “repent” of his faith. But instead of a gut-wrenching, prolonged battle of the soul, he accomplishes this momentous change of heart in the time it takes most people to change their socks. In approximately twenty-five pages, he makes Peter’s big denial seem like a hiccup.

You’re wondering what astounding psychological earthquake could produce such a rapid and total renunciation? Did he read The DaVinci Code? Did he get a hold of a bad Testamint? No, it was—are you ready? A few nights of sex with one of the teenage Asian girls he was teaching English. I’m not making this up. In a mirror image of all the hokey conversion scenes you’ve ever read in a CBA novel, after twenty-five years as a model Timothy, Dalton’s protagonist gives in to temptation once, and drops every vestige of faith without a backward glance. The logic appears to be: Sex with a teenaged girl feels good because I am lonely—therefore—This whole God thing has obviously been a hoax. No, I don’t get it either.

Angst? Nope. Guilt? Not to speak of. Remorse? Only when his face is turned into raw squid by the girl’s adult brother. In the remaining 300+ pages we get, literally, only a handful of references to his abandoned beliefs, and none of them are particularly meaningful (to him or to the reader).

Ultimately, the whole renunciation of faith “bit” feels like a thin plot device. Because the God nonsense is behind him now, and his ministry is ruined, Vincent is freed up to undertake the real mission of the book: an eventful trek across China in order to marry a Chinese woman of great beauty (He’s paid to be a surrogate husband by a Taiwanese businessman, and I’ll stop the explanation there before I spoil it.)

For the Christian writer, I would suggest dividing the book into three parts, rather than the author’s five: The first 125 pages are a beautiful model of what Christian novels might be, freed of limitations about content and how nonbelievers are rendered. The next twenty-five pages could only please a Bertrand Russell or a Frederick Neitzsche by the speed in which Christianity is relegated to the trash bin (Please understand, even in this section the prose itself is still superb. Since it has recently been established that we are adults here, I can bluntly say that the scenes involving snuggle-bunnies are written with humor and a focus on meaning, not mechanics. If you’re interested in that topic, as recently discussed in these pages, it’s worth your time to check it out). The remainder of the book was a captivating story. If you mentally block out the protagonist’s history, as if Vincent had never been a Christian, it’s a very worthwhile read.

To close, let me share a few things I’ve considered while thinking this novel over. I’d love to hear your thoughts, too.

1) People can change, sometimes in dramatic ways—belief to unbelief (Heaven Lake), self-centered to God-centered (Godric), mental turmoil to peace (Crime & Punishment). Theology tells us this is true, psychology tells us this is true, and—at it’s best—fiction makes us ringside spectators of profound change in characters we come to know and love.

2) Change is usually a slow, difficult process. There might be a better fictional example of this than Gone With The Wind, but I can’t think of it right now. How many bumps, bruises, and shocks did Scarlett absorb along the path? Through years of hardship, we see her—and an entire nation—change with the times (Ashley Wilkes represents those unable to change, and it’s hard to say whether he or Scarlett endure the greater pain). While most novels don’t allow their authors the luxury of having an epic-long span of time to work with, it’s still to our advantage not to treat our character’s changes lightly.

3) When change appears suddenly, it is usually preceded by numerous events/influences leading up to an abrupt decision. One of Dave’s favorites, Andres Dubus, is fond of showing us this truth. Dubus frequently revisited the pain of divorce, often starting with the traumatic announcement of the breakup, then working backwards to show the events leading up to this moment of change. If there’s a sudden change in a character, let the reader in on the underlying reasons.

4) When change appears suddenly, without just cause, it rings false. “Just cause,” of course, will be a subjective evaluation for each reader. But we’ve all seen CBA conversion scenes that were too easy—too slick. With Heaven Lake, we see the other side of the same coin. Remember Reverend Jim Casy, from Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath? He, too, left his ministry under similar circumstances. But we can accept his change of heart as convincing because his doubts took hold of him gradually, and he wrestled with the implications—with deep emotion and extensive thought—before shedding his faith in Jesus.

Again, my thanks to Alan for taking time to put a few thoughts to the page. He gets bonus points for mentioning Andre Dubus.

Tomorrow we'll come back to Alan's mention of words-per-sentence and this blog's recent insistence on trying to force the written language into the rigid structure of mathematics.