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Writers of historical fiction generally prefer to entice us with visions of the distant past. In Sons of Heaven, Terrence Cheng takes us back only as far as the late ’80s, but he chronicles a series of events that most Westerners still don’t know that much about. The spring 1989 protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square culminated in a June slaughter by the ironically named People’s Liberation Army of hundreds—perhaps even thousands—of Chinese citizens. It would have been easy for Cheng to have turned Sons of Heaven into a jeremiad against Deng Xiaoping and the other Communist muckety-mucks who recoiled at the prospect of an authentic “people’s revolution.” Instead, the writer—who was born in Taiwan and has spent most of his life in New York City—forgoes polemics and opts to hang his narrative on a real person: the never-identified man who faced down a line of Chinese T-59s at the risk of becoming so much tank mulch. Cheng transforms this mysterious figure into a student who’s returned from America to find both the Chinese economy and his love life in tatters. Far from being a radical reformer, Xiao-Di seems to want little but a real job and a letter from his former girlfriend. Trapped between grandparents who want him to conform, a brother who is one of the soldiers sent to quell the protests, and a lifelong friend who believes fervently in the demonstrators’ cause, Xiao-Di finds himself an unwilling player in one of the late 20th century’s most futile, and poignant, mass gestures. Cheng reads at 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 29, at Olsson’s Books & Records, 1200 F St. NW. Free. (202) 347-3686. (Michael Little)