Antoine Wilson’s third novel, Mouth to Mouth, begins with a straightforward setup: At an airport, the unnamed narrator runs into Jeff, an old college acquaintance. As they wait together for a delayed flight, Jeff recalls the time he saved a life.
Simple enough. But the questions that arise from that act—was it worth it? what did it change?—have significance and depth. Wilson’s prose may be as clear as his narrative, but it leaves room for a lot of moral inquiry. After all, as we learn early in the novel, Jeff has never told anyone about this experience. The atmosphere is one of a secret, then a campfire tale, then something closer to a horror story.
With the narrator as captive audience—there’s nothing to do until the flight finally begins to board—Jeff describes his discovery of a man drowning off a beach in Santa Monica. After diving to his rescue, Jeff successfully revives the man via mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and chest compressions. His lifesaving effort breaks a few ribs, but a lifeguard later reassures him, “If they don’t crack, they don’t come back.”
Through some surreptitious investigating, Jeff identifies the person he has saved as Francis, a prominent gallery owner in Beverly Hills. Jeff begins to shadow him, then infiltrates his life, taking a job in the gallery without revealing who he is. As Jeff spins it—taking us into unreliable-narrator territory—there’s a certain humility involved; he doesn’t want to come across as expecting anything in return for what he’s done. Still, avoiding one form of discomfort exposes Jeff to others. First, his surveillance leads him to suspect that Francis is having an affair. Then, he watches as Francis forces the gallery staff to endure humiliating tantrums.
What kind of savior are you if the person you’ve saved is disreputable, even ugly?
Considering that question by yourself, in private, is the stuff of meditation, perhaps prayer. But considering it with somebody else, in a first-class airport lounge—well, now you’ve crossed into the realm of conspiracy. Wilson could have written Mouth to Mouth from Jeff’s perspective. But instead the book becomes a dialogue, which darkens and deepens the narrative that Jeff is laying out.
What Wilson is suggesting is that our identities depend on our histories with others. At what point do they become uncomfortably, inappropriately braided? Eventually, Jeff emerges as Francis’s protégé and, later, as a successful art dealer himself. Is this something he has stolen from Francis, or is it his due? Jeff has literally given some part of his life to Francis, breathed it into him; in turn, Francis projects some part of his life onto Jeff. Then Jeff projects both lives onto the narrator, who is left to wrestle with the implications of complicity.
Because the novel is set in the art world, themes of doubling and projection multiply. How much of what we see on a canvas is representative of the mind of its creator? How much of a collector’s personality is reflected in the work they buy? For Wilson, none of these questions are easy, or charming, or speak to our human connectedness. Instead, they’re burdens that raise issues of obligation and become sources of suspicion. The narrator notices Jeff’s tics, the way his repeated turns of phrase suggest he’s not saying everything (“there it was again, no planning or forethought”). The mood is Hitchcockian.
That feeling intensifies in the novel’s final act, which involves further doubling and mirroring. The more he insinuates himself, the more Jeff mirrors Francis; the more he is drawn into the story, the more the narrator mirrors Jeff; the more we’re seduced by what he hears, the more we mirror the narrator. Wilson performs a neat trick here by routinely sliding Jeff’s narrative out of quotation, which makes the narrator both a witness to the drama and its creator. Dread materializes out of the creeping feeling that comes from any stalker story: empathy ceases to be empathetic when we move from understanding somebody’s life to co-opting it.
As the narrator tells us, “[Jeff] was getting a clearer picture of the man he’d rescued. Possibly even a clearer picture than Francis had of himself, in some ways, because those who watch our behavior might know us better than we know ourselves. Whose self-image is ever accurate?”
The answer, of course, is nobody’s. But the image we try to impose on others is rarely accurate either. Wilson is masterfully subdued when it comes to characterizing Jeff. He’s neither savior nor exploiter—or if he is one of these, it’s a function of our projections onto him. Only on the very last page, with a brushstroke of a sentence, does Wilson introduce a detail that tilts the ledger.
Before that, Jeff is working through some reasonable questions: If we save somebody’s life, are we obligated to help that life mean something? Existence isn’t as pliable as that. But a novel is a fine way to explore the instinct; the form thrives in parallels and ironies and metaphors. The spare, direct structure of Mouth to Mouth leaves room to tangle with the messier frustrations of identity. If we can’t live in harmony with others, we’re stuck being ourselves.
“Have you ever wanted to zero out the past?” Wilson writes. “…It’s impossible…. We have to live with our choices.” A simple point made in the middle of a novel, yet you cannot help but feel its crushing weight.•