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Heads You Win by Jeffrey Archer

Published by St. Martin's Press on November 6, 2018

Stories about immigrants are particularly important in a time when so many American nationalists seem to have forgotten that they are only Americans because their ancestors were once welcomed as immigrants. Too many Americans also forget the role that immigrants have played in fighting the nation’s wars. Jeffrey Archer provides a powerful reminder of those facts in Heads You Win, a unique novel that explores the two paths a Russian refugee’s life might have followed, depending on whether he boarded a ship bound for England or the United States.

In 1968, Alexander Karpenko’s father, Konstantin, is secretly attempting to organize a trade union when Alex’s friend, Vladimir, betrays Konstantin to the KGB. The betrayal produces Konstantin’s “accidental” death and fuels Alexander’s suspicion that Vladimir bought his way into the KGB by being a weasel. As a result of his treachery, Vladimir is given an education he doesn’t deserve, while the more capable Alex is given a job at the docks. Alex’s mother Elena, with an assist from her brother, decide that Alex will only have a future if he escapes from the Soviet Union.

There are two ships, two choices: England or the United States. He flips a coin. So where does he go? Archer imagines both fates, splitting Alexander in two and exploring both lives. In half of the novel, Alex and Elena travel to the United States. In the other half, Sasha and Elena disembark in England. Sasha’s voyage is more pleasant than Alex’s, perhaps because British seamen more civilized than Americans, but both versions of Alexander manage to survive and prosper, combining their natural talent with hard work to forge successful lives in their adopted countries.

In fact, thanks to his goalkeeping and math skills, Sasha lives something of a charmed life, despite discovering the trouble that a privileged kid can cause for a Russian immigrant. A bit of adversity, however, doesn’t prevent Sasha from helping his mother move over the course of time from chef to acclaimed restaurant owner.

In America, Alex and his mother are dependent on the apparent kindness of a Russian named Dimitri, a man Alex suspects to be a spy. But Alex’s biggest problem, apart from pursuing his dream of wealth while attending NYU, is the draft and Vietnam, a war that will haunt him for the rest of his life. This being America, Elena does not open a posh restaurant, but puts together a chain of pizza parlors.

At Cambridge, Vietnam isn’t on the horizon for Sasha, but a political career seems to be beckoning. Alex, on the other hand, pursues a business career. Both versions of the Russian immigrant would like to return to Russia to run for president and bring true democracy to the country.

The parallel stories are an unusual device. When Alex eventually travels to London and Sasha to New York, we learn that Alex and Sasha both exist, not in separate realities but (within the logic of the story) as two separate people inhabiting the same world, apparently having split in two at the moment of the coin flip. That element of fantasy requires the reader to suspend disbelief, but the twinned stories are so absorbing that I easily accepted the premise that made them possible.

As an idealized story of how an immigrant can make a difference, Heads You Win is admirable. Life for both Alex and Sasha might be too easy — certainly easier than the lives of most immigrants, whose families typically benefit from their hard work after a generation or two — but Horatio Alger stories are inspiring, and this one is captivating thanks to the wealth of detail that Archer brings to both lives. Some parts of the story (including a clever plot that Alex orchestrates near the end) are too improbable to be credible, but in a story that is ultimately a fantasy, improbability can be forgiven. The ending of one story is a surprise, but it might have been the only ending that would not do violence to history as we know it.

The story is one of hope, albeit tempered by realism. It is largely apolitical, although it pointedly rejects nationalism as both versions of Alexander strive to build a world that emphasizes our commonality rather than our differences, a world based on principles of equality and cooperation. In the atmosphere of America First and Brexit, any story that reminds us of the value immigrants bring to a nation and of the evils of nationalism is easy to recommend, particularly when it is executed with the storytelling skill for which Archer is known.


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