ness: the actors in our contemporarynshort stories and novels, bastard offspringnof Raymond Carver’s deconstructionnof Chekhov, are as unthinkingnand uninteresting as the bulk of humankind.nFrom the days of Don Quixote untilnvery recently, the fabulist’s stock hadnbeen to place extraordinary charactersnin ordinary circumstances, or, evennbetter, to place ordinary characters innsituations that require ennobling — ornat least unusual — actions. This chargenhas withered into the now-standard,ntedious minimalism of writers likenRichard Ford, the bleak nihilism ofnBret Fasten Fllis and the New Yorknschool of spoiled-rich-kid artistes whonseem to dominate publishers’ catalogs.nTheir art is a mirror reflechng life. Butnthat life is shaped by television, illiteracy,njunk food, and nothingness —nhardly the stuff of a masterwork, orneven of third-rate fiction.nIf only because it restores somethingnof the ordinary person’s ability to rise tonmorally informed judgments in then36/CHRONICLESnLIBERAL ARTSnEUGENICS IN CHINAnface of adversity, Kent Nelson’s work isnto be commended. His fictions are alsonextremely well made, written by annartist in sure command of his craft.nNelson bucks the minimalist trendnwhile appropriating some of its lessnnoxious elements, and he creates anbelievable fictional landscape of charactersnone would not mind encounteringnin the checkout line or stranded onna roadside. They have something tonsay, and what they have to say matters.nNelson’s aptly tided, baker’s-dozenncollection of stories, The Middle ofnNowhere, takes as its setting places thatntest one’s mettle: the deserts of Arizonanand northern Mexico, the unsettlednhighlands of Colorado, prisons, EastnCoast back alleys. The title story,namong the strongest in a strong suite,ncenters on a young man’s coming ofnage in that most American of locales, angarbage-strewn trailer park on the edgenof a large Western city. Fchoing BernardonBertolucci’s luminous film LastnTango in Paris, Nelson’s humble storynsearches out the aftereffects of loss, thenWith the aim of improving “population quality,” China isncurrently sterilizing mentally retarded persons who wish tonmarry. The punishment for failure to observe the law,nmeaning an illegal pregnancy, is obligatory abortion. Accordingnto the New York Times last August, this eugenics law wasnfirst adopted by the Gansu Province in 1988, and hasnresulted in the sterilization of five thousand mentallynretarded people. Five other provinces have followed suit.nPrime Minister Li Peng favors such controls becausen”mentally retarded people give birth to idiots” and “they’llnbe detrimental to our aim of raising the quality of thenpeople.” A national eugenics law is currently being drafted,nbut criticism from the West and from the United States innparticular has delayed this legislation. The laws as they existnin the provinces have few if any guidelines, except in thenGansu Province, where mental retardation is defined as annIQ of 49 or lower. Administration of the law is often left upnto the discretion of rural doctors who typically have littlenmore than a high school education. There are between fivenand twelve million Chinese who,are mentally retarded.nnngrief of parting, and the addictions thatnso often accompany them.nFor all the brilliance of the desertnsun. Nelson’s story partakes of a bleaknatmosphere and a hard vision of working-classnrealities. Yet his protagonistsnrespond by refusing to accept quotidianndefeats; his young narrator salvagesnmeaning from life by marching steadfasriynaway from the slough of despond.n”The Middle of Nowhere,” likenNelson’s other tales, is far from inspirational,nbut his characters, who are asnreal as the faces we meet daily, arensuitably heroic in the mere act of takingnresponsibility for their lives.nLanguage in the Blood, Nelson’snthird novel, returns to the familiarnsetting of the desert Southwest. Hisnnarrator, Scott Talmadge, a young aviannbiologist drafted to take over annailing professor’s university courses, is antypical thirtysomething casualty of thenMe Decade: nervous, uncertain, shy ofnemotional commitment and evennemotion itself, certainly not to be reliednon in a pinch. He avoids the old friendsnwho shaped his past life in Nelson’snfabulated Tucson until he begins tonbore himself, one drunken eveningnafter another; then he seeks out hisnelusive alter ego, a trust-fund hippienwhose days are spent alternately patchingna fortress-like adobe house andndisappearing into remote corners of thendesert, from which he returns withncarloads of mysterious indios who haventrudged northward from the killingnfields of Salvador.nOur protagonist takes a few chaptersnto rise to the occasion, for he lacks thennatural machismo of fictional charactersnpast. Still, he is eventually drawnninto the sanctuary network. In thencourse of aiding that very real undergroundnrailroad and of suffering yetnmore losses. Nelson’s narrator attains ansort of natural nobility; by merely havingnacted, just once, to do somethingnright, his deflated character reacquiresna humanity that had abandoned himnlong before. It’s a neat trick, and Nelsonnpacks a good measure of suspenseninto Talmadge’s growth. He tells it innmoving tenor:nYears later, when all thesenevents come to mind, I seenthose faces first. The faces.nPerhaps the police becomeninured to seeing suffering in then