Mouth to Mouth: A Novel
- By Antoine Wilson
- Avid Reader Press
- 192 pp.
- Reviewed by Carr Harkrader
- January 25, 2022
A long-lost friend shares his odd, unsettling tale from the comfort of an airport lounge.
The narrator of Antoine Wilson’s new novel, Mouth to Mouth, is lucky in one respect. While waiting out a delayed flight at JFK, he’s whisked away to the first-class lounge, an oasis of free drinks, quiet voices, and “humane” bathrooms. Most of us would have to make do with a Starbucks kiosk and a sticky seat in the terminal.
But lounge passes, like lunches, don’t come free. The never-named narrator is a writer on his way to Berlin, and his escort into this gilded aviary of a waiting area is an old college classmate, Jeff, whom he spots at the gate. They haven’t seen each other in almost 20 years. With his expensive shoes and “glasses with transparent Lucite frames,” Jeff looks almost like a whole new man from what the narrator remembers of him. In college, Jeff smoked a lot of weed. Now, he’s on the really good stuff.
Ensconced in the lounge, Jeff starts to share his tale. A few years after college, he rescued an older man from drowning in the waves off a Santa Monica beach. The saved man, Francis, turns out to be an art dealer. In revelations that are slowly uncovered — and that continue up until the last page — Jeff becomes enmeshed in the man’s life.
It’s no spoiler to say that Francis turns out to be a manipulative jerk. (Has there ever been a friendly gallery owner portrayed in literature?) “We do what we want…or we’re nothing,” Francis says of the choices he makes in art and life.
Jeff tells all of this to the narrator partly, it seems, to get it off his chest (he mentions that he’s never told the complete story to anyone before) and partly to convey what a good person he is to have saved a man’s life. But the latter reason should be self-evident, and the former seems suspicious. The perverse delight of the novel comes from this simmering “frisson,” to borrow from the author, between the tale and its teller. What really happened between Jeff and Francis? What is happening between Jeff and the narrator?
As for the unnamed writer/narrator, he’s only telling us the story Jeff tells him. The first-person narration creeps almost unnoticeably into the third person across the short chapters that structure the book. If this novel were a sentence, it would drive your fourth-grade teacher nuts because you couldn’t diagram it. The subject, the object, and the action remain ambiguous until the very end.
In Wilson’s debut novel, The Interloper, the male protagonist writes letters to a prison inmate in the guise of a lovelorn woman and becomes more consumed (and expressive) in that reality than in his own tedious marriage. Those themes of imitation, manipulation, and hidden recognition are heightened in Mouth to Mouth. Like the description of a sliver of clear glass on an otherwise frosted door in the lounge, Wilson offers the reader just “a strip of transparency in a field of translucency” about what is motivating his characters to make the choices they do.
Mouth to Mouth is a narrative with no trust, written in prose so controlled as to be unsettling. There is a chill to the book that arises not so much from the tension created, but from the placidity with which the characters (Jeff, in particular) face it. Reading the novel for the first time is like watching a man in shorts and flipflops walk casually down a snowy street. Odd, impressive even, but what is he trying to prove?
It was about halfway through my second reading that I realized what the book was doing. The evidence was in front of me the whole time. A writer avoiding responsibility. A stoner college student from the 1990s suddenly rich in middle age. A morally corrupt baby boomer flirting with death. All told from the heights of a Mount Olympus-like airport lounge.
This book might be sold as a psychological thriller, but it’s really — and, if allusions can be spoilers, then this might be a big one — a Gen-X Greek revenge fantasy. Gnarly, dude.
Carr Harkrader is a writer and book critic in Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter at @CarrHark.