Editor's choice

First Loyalty, by Richard Lourie. San Diego, New York, London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 405 pp. $17.95. Very little can prepare you for reading Richard Lourie's stunning new novel, ``First Loyalty.'' Author of ``Sagittarius in Warsaw,'' which won the Joseph Henry Jackson Prize for fiction in 1971, and of a study of the contemporary Russian writer Andrei Sinyavsky (``Letters to the Future''), Lourie, who lives in Newton, Mass., moves in the underground world of literature and dissident politics. Like Sinyavsky, who wrote three books while imprisoned for writing a pamphlet and a few stories (disguised as le tters to his wife, the books got by the prison censor!), Lourie appears to be writing out of an isolation crowded with compelling ideas, some of them characters.

``First Loyalty'' is about a nice, liberal New Yorker, David Aronow, and his Russian double. Aronow makes a living by translating pieces of contemporary Russian for Russian emigr'es, American publishers, the police, anybody. His counterpart is Evegny Shar, a dissident Russian poet who, unbeknownst to adoring liberal and emigr'e fans, including Aronow, works for the KGB. Shar's arrival in New York brings him into fatal contact with Aronow.

``First Loyalty'' affords a privileged look at the communal culture, much of it parasitic, that grows up around the exiled political writer in the West.

Lourie's literary powers are considerable. By deft editing and poetic transitions he keeps various actions up in the air and the suspense growing. The reader has to constantly revise his judgments.

Evegny Shar is a revelation. As a poet he can hide his reason for being in the West. The emigr'e community, with very few exceptions, is as naive as the New York publishing community.

The exceptions? Abram Lunz, himself an exiled Russian poet whose commentary on America (``Noise-music and drugs'') and Soviet leaders (``basically crazy'') provides a continuous base line for the novel. Lunz alone penetrates Shar's disguise -- by seeing through the poetry: ``All I can do is hear the exact person in the words, and I did not hear anything in his poem. Nothing.''

``First Loyalty'' is not only a superb suspense novel, it is also a meditation on ``the exact person in the words.'' Using sleeping pills and vodka to discover what he feels is the basis of existence, Aronow is led by Shar ``far away from himself, the person he was, the boring mystery of him,'' into the hurtling series of events that bring the novel to its terrific climax.

``The exact person in the words'' of the numerous characters (all defined precisely and movingly) that crowd the pages of ``First Loyalty'' is, I think, what Lourie wants us to think about. As for real people, besides Abram Lunz there are Andrusha, a Russian photographer tortured by the KGB, and Solly Altheim, the New York detective whose search for reconciliation with his dead father combines many of the themes of this complex novel.

There may be others. Perhaps poor Naomi Rosen, who helps David secure a secret piece of film. . . .

Perhaps Yasha Farb, the emigr'e scientist whose idea ``to combine the pharmacological research being done in gerontology with their work on the varieties of extrasensory perception'' attracts the attention of the Soviets and thereafter governs the lives -- and the plot -- of ``First Loyalty.'' . . .

Perhaps. That an ``exact person'' exists potentially in each of us (our ``First Loyalty'') is borne witness to throughout, but never more powerfully than in the last pages of the novel. Here the KGB head of disinformation -- who had virtually created Evegny Shar -- has a lonely hour on the stage all by himself.

Here, as elsewhere, Lourie's novel opens on tragic dimensions, becoming more than what it most obviously is, a powerful, superbly crafted, and very timely suspense novel.

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