Antoine Wilson is the author of the novels Panorama City and The Interloper. He’s now published Mouth to Mouth, a new novel that will keep you curiously reading until the last surprising page.
In New York’s JFK International Airport, the unnamed narrator of this ingenious page-turner becomes an accidental listener. He’s on the same delayed flight to Frankfurt as Jeff Cook, a UCLA classmate he hasn’t seen for 20 years. The obviously successful Jeff, in his everything-perfect attire, extends an invitation to join him in the first-class lounge, where he embarks on a troubling story he’s never told anyone. “Running into you was serendipitous,” he comments over their drinks. “You were there at the beginning.” He means, we come to learn, the narrator knew Jeff when he was a thoughtful person with a good heart.
Not long after his college days, Jeff rescued a drowning man. Most would see it as a heroic deed to take pride in, but Jeff recalls the event as a traumatic burden. He needs to meet the man he saved, who turns out to be Francis Arsenault, a wealthy art dealer known for his discerning eye. Jeff devises a chance encounter, following him on the street and into a hotel lobby, but Francis casts a blank look: He doesn’t recognize him. When a job opening is advertised at Francis’s art gallery, Jeff applies and gets it.
We never really know why we do what we do.
Jeff emphasizes this point of thoughtless decision-making with a strenuous need for the narrator to acknowledge it. The insistence hints at something not right, but like other suspicious moments to come — when the narrator questions what he’s hearing — it passes, seeming unimportant. “Stick with me,” Jeff will say in an ominous refrain, avoiding answers.
Employed as the new gallery receptionist, Jeff greets visitors and patiently addresses gallery postcards. He bides his time in hopes of catching glimpses of Francis in action. He meets Chloe, Francis’s daughter at a gallery opening, and they become a couple. Francis sees potential in Jeff and introduces him to gallery artists and collectors. He still doesn’t recognize him, but that no longer seems to matter to Jeff as much as knowing how the near-death experience affected Francis. Deeper and deeper Jeff becomes involved in the Francis Arsenault world of art and family. He realizes Francis would be experiencing none of it had he, Jeff Cook, not granted him new life. He tells his listener:
… it was impossible for me to look at anything Francis-related and not feel that I was at least partially responsible for it. …It started to sink in that I’d accomplished something. But what, exactly, remained to be seen.
What’s brilliant about this novel is the uncertainty twined in the story at the airport with the one 20 years before, each playing with a theme of deception and manipulation. There’s the adult Jeff, so elegantly dressed, generous in his appeal, but does he have motive with the narrator? And there’s the much younger Jeff struggling to comprehend what saving a life means. Or was he ambitiously calculating?
Right up to the startling last page, we’re intensely engaged, curious, darkly unsettled, and, like the narrator, waiting to find out how Jeff Cook’s story will end. It’s masterful storytelling.
Mouth to Mouth by Antoine Wilson is published by Avid Reader Press, an imprint of Simon and Schuster. A version of this review aired on NPR member station WOSU 89.7 FM, broadcasting throughout central Ohio.