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‘Mouth to Mouth’ Review: Short Yet Shocking

5 Stars

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The first thing that one would notice upon picking up Antoine Wilson’s “Mouth to Mouth” is its brevity. The novel is only 179 pages, divided into chapters that rarely exceed three pages — but what it lacks in length it makes up for in richness. Wilson’s vivid description, stunning characterization, and insightful exploration of morality culminate in an unforgettable book.

“Mouth to Mouth” begins at John F. Kennedy International Airport with the unexpected reunion of two old college acquaintances. The unnamed narrator waits for a delayed flight with fellow passenger Jeff Cook in the first class lounge, listening intently as Cook recounts the events of his life after college. What seems to be a mundane story about lost love turns into a thrilling sequence in which Cook saves a man from drowning with mouth to mouth.

The description of Cook performing CPR is incredibly visceral, exemplifying Wilson’s ability to appeal to the senses. When ribs crack under the weight of chest compressions, Cook can feel “bone scraping against bone.” The lifeless body is haunting: limp and blue, with foamy saltwater dribbling from cold lips. Wilson’s artistry makes it effortless for readers to empathize with Cook’s exhaustion and disgust, as well as his determination to keep the drowned man alive until he regains consciousness. This moment of resuscitation permanently entangles the lives of Cook and the man he saves, esteemed art dealer Francis Arsenault.

Every character in Wilson’s novel feels wonderfully real. His characterization exceeds simple adjectives, instead referring to people like Cook as a “thrift store Adonis” or “long haired guardian angel.” The characters jump off the page, engaging in a natural flow of conversation and reacting to situations with a range of physical movements, facial expressions, and emotions.

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After the incident, Cook seeks out Arsenault, but it appears that the art dealer has no recollection of the man who saved his life. Rather than letting it go, Cook deepens his involvement in Arsenault’s existence, encroaching on his workspace and social circles. His preoccupation with Arsenault allows Wilson to open a discussion on morality.

The first subject of Wilson’s moral examination is the art dealer himself. One would expect someone who had a near-death experience to approach life with newfound gratitude. But when Arsenault continues to cheat on his wife and treat others with disrespect, Cook asks himself: Was saving him worth it? Arsenault becomes the poster child for what not to do with a second chance, quickly becoming the novel’s antagonist.

The second subject is Cook. Wilson cleverly tells Cook’s story in the third person, placing an unnamed character in the role of first person narrator instead. This distance between Cook and the narrator is crucial for allowing readers the space to question his morality. There is space for doubt to creep into their minds as to whether his motivations are genuine and virtuous. Readers are nudged even further toward suspicion when the narrator describes his skepticism and questions Cook’s reasoning, only to receive vague answers in return.

Cook’s questionable venture into Arsenault’s life also provides an intimate view of the art world. Much like he did for his characters, Wilson employs detailed descriptions of the Los Angeles art scene to make the atmosphere tangible. He guides readers to become acquainted with the unfamiliar, making great strides in dismantling the art world’s inaccessibility.

In addition to reading books and watching documentaries on the contemporary art world, Wilson took inspiration for this setting from his experiences working in the field in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He recalled in a Q&A at Powell’s Books that he entered the “strange, strange world” knowing almost nothing about it. Wilson’s personal expertise reveals itself when Cook sets foot in the art gallery, conveying the feeling of artistic alienation to readers.

Here, Wilson’s aptitude for comedy shines. Anyone who has struggled to understand contemporary art will find it impossible to suppress a chuckle when Cook looks at a collection of paintings and thinks “a child could have made these.”

Wilson’s novel is made even more captivating by its structure. Cook’s story is frequently interrupted by flashes of the present moment in the airport. These moments make the narrative flow more dynamic and remind readers that they are listening to a story just as much as they are reading a text. The dialogue in these scenes is also impressively realistic, as though Wilson had transcribed real-life conversations. Readers are hooked by what’s to come when Cook foreshadows events with direct statements like “Stick with me here” or “I’ll get to that.”

At the end of the novel, after an emotionally turbulent chain of events, Wilson seems to tie up all loose ends. And yet, the final sentence brings the conclusion into question: Did Cook leave the narrator with a lie?

—Staff writer Nina M. Foster can be reached at nina.foster@thecrimson.com.

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