It's hard to believe that "The Defection of A.J. Lewinter" is a first novel. Sure, it's brief (barely 300 pages, using a large typeface), but it's so self-assured, so brilliant, so audacious, that it smacks of a later work written by a giant who's merely taking some time off from writing epics.
The title is seemingly dead-on. American scientist A.J. Lewinter defects to the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War. (While the time period is never specifically stated, it's definitely post-Kennedy and pre-Gorbachev.) The defection is surprisingly easy, and Lewinter has an easier time ditching his American security than he does convincing the Soviets to let him defect.
And that's the crux of Littell's lean novel of espionage and paranoia. The Americans are understandably paranoid -- they've got a defector, which is embarrassing enough, but this guy may know some military secrets of considerable value. But the Soviets are equally paranoid, if not more so. What if this Lewinter is a CIA plant, and this is a phony defection? If the Soviets misread Lewinter, it could mean a disastrous hit to the Soviet system of 5-year plans, not to mention a few bullets put into the backs of a few heads.
Littell keeps the pressure on, as the Americans and the Soviets plot and scheme to figure out just what the heck has happened by this defection as well as how to play it. For the Soviets, will the Americans use reverse-psychology and act like the defection is no big deal (thereby hopefully leading the Soviets to conclude that Lewinter is a fraud)? Or are the Americans playing reverse-reverse psychology, hoping that by doing nothing the Soviets will interpret this as the Americans trying to convince the Soviets that Lewinter is a fraud, when really Lewinter is the real thing? More layers than an onion are involved here, and Littell spices things up with dashes of humor interlaced into the web of deceit and danger.
I'm not sure where Littell gets all the insider information he has for his novels (I have already enjoyed "The Amateur" and adored both "The Sisters" and "The Company"), but he writes as if he knows this world of Cold War espionage like the back of his hand. While the lack of scope of this novel (arguably, a "mere" novella) prevents me from awarding it with a five-star rating like I gave his epic "The Company," that's a statement of the awe in which I hold the larger work. "The Defection of A.J. Lewinter" is a clever bit of work that never strains its convolutions or jumps the tracks.
A quick, thrilling read, "Defection" offers a delightful day-trip into the back rooms of the Cold War, and it's well-worth the trip. This is the perfect appetizer to choose before diving into Littell's longer, darker works.