What is the value of saving someone’s life if they turn out to be “an asshole”? In his latest novel, a Highsmithian literary thriller, Antoine Wilson tracks the aftermath of a fateful intersection of two strangers.
The story at the heart of Mouth to Mouth is nested within a framing device. The narrator, a struggling writer in his forties, runs into Jeff Cook, an old classmate from UCLA, while on a layover at JFK. With both of their flights delayed, Cook invites him to the lounge and, over beers, proceeds to share a story he claims he has never told anyone before.
Shortly after graduation, alone on a Santa Monica beach, Cook sees a swimmer in crisis. Acting on instinct, he rescues and resuscitates the drowning man. When he doesn’t receive any thanks, Cook becomes curious about the person he gave a second chance at life, a gallerist named Francis Arsenault. Cook tails him, ostensibly to make sure he’s all right. He takes an entry-level job at Arsenault’s gallery but gets more embroiled than expected when he begins dating Arsenault’s daughter, Chloe, and is quickly promoted. “I never forget a face,” says Arsenault, but doesn’t let on if he recognises Cook from the beach.
Wilson’s 2007 debut, The Interloper, was a first-person account of a man who becomes increasingly unhinged as he seeks to avenge the murder of his brother-in-law. In his 2012 follow-up, Panorama City, Wilson pivoted from noir to humour, with a Forrest Gump-type narrator imparting wisdom to his unborn son.
While Wilson’s first two novels plumbed the polarities of good and evil, Mouth to Mouth keeps us guessing by swinging between the two. When Cook rescues Arsenault, he is comforted by the idea that the act suggests he’s a good person. Arsenault, by contrast, later tells him that “there is no good or bad, only advantageous and its opposite” and that youth is about going after “everything you want”. As Arsenault takes him under his wing, Cook’s eyes open to the gallerist’s shady dealings.
The book’s title refers of course to the resuscitation performed to save Arsenault, an act that could be considered the opposite of murder. But with the reliability of Cook’s narrative called into question, it also suggests the passing of stories from one person to another. “You knew me then. That I had a good heart,” Cook replies when the narrator asks why he’s chosen to tell him about the intervention on the beach and all that ensued. What kind of self-portrait is Cook hoping to paint by sharing his secrets with a writer?
Despite the risk of creating distance with a framing narrative, the precision with which Wilson details the worlds in which the story unfolds — from the first-class lounge to the LA art scene — renders it real. In a landscape of literary fiction trending towards navel-gazing, it’s a delight to read a pacy story, well told. Wilson’s propulsive prose moves the plot forward until the novel’s final twist in its last sentence. Mouth to Mouth is to be devoured in one greedy gulp, but the questions it raises linger long afterwards.