An Inverse Mirroring of the Frame in “Mouth to Mouth” – Chicago Review of Books


Like Gone Girl, Antoine Wilson’s Mouth to Mouth is a thriller titled after its inciting incident.  It’s the early nineties, and Jeff Cook, an aimless recent college graduate saves the life of a drowning swimmer off of Santa Monica beach by diving into the surf and performing CPR on the man. Though he doesn’t realize it, this act is Jeff’s first step on a journey into the rarefied world of the Los Angeles art scene. That’s the inner story of this novel, at least, and its frame is a chance meeting at an airport decades later.  

In the present day, our narrator, an American author of middling to low notability finds his flight delayed one morning on a layover at JFK. Waiting at the gate, he recognizes one of his co-travellers as a classmate from college. The classmate is none other than Jeff Cook, who only wore “ripped-up jeans and weathered T-shirts” when the two were students together at UCLA, but who is now a “handsome man in his forties… dressed in a sharp blue suit” and “glasses with transparent Lucite frames.”  Jeff recognizes the narrator as well, and invites him to a first-class airport lounge to recount to him his transformation from the t-shirt-and-faded-jeans Jeff to the elegantly-suited businessman standing before him, beginning with his rescue of the drowning man.  

The man he saved was, it turns out, Francis Arsenault, a renowned, career-making art dealer and though Arsenault, unconscious at the time of his rescue, doesn’t know the identity of his rescuer, Jeff, tipped off by a lifeguard at the scene of the rescue, learns where Arsenault works. From there, he slowly ingratiates himself into Arsenault’s life, starting to work for him at his art gallery and then dating his daughter, all without Arsenault’s knowledge that Jeff is the young man who saved his life.  

Although the sections where Jeff tells his story, with their expansive prose and word-for-word memorization of dialogue, strain the pretense that this is a story told second-hand, Wilson does have a real use for his framing device. The novel’s narrator, a stand-in for Wilson, airs his suspicions of Jeff’s motives for telling his story and questions his reliability, and two levels of tension drive the novel’s plot: the first, at the level of Jeff’s story, comes from the suspense about whether Jeff will be found out as the person who saved Arsenault’s life, a fact he feels he must constantly conceal from Arsenault—even if he’s only concealing an act of personal heroism. The second, at the level of the frame story, comes from the question of why Jeff is telling his story and what it is Jeff wants to confess to his erstwhile classmate.  “As his story proceeded, I felt an increasing indefinable discomfort,” the narrator confesses to us as he listens to Jeff’s story. “Was it excavation, though, Jeff getting everything off his chest?  Or was he painting for me a self-portrait?  And what is a self-portrait if not self-serving?”

Indeed, there is an interesting inverse mirroring of the frame story told in the airport lounge and the story story set in LA. In the latter, Jeff is the middle-class outsider awed by Arsenault’s wealth. And in the former, Jeff is the wealthy businessman, in contrast to our narrator who’s toting a “scruffy backpack” and who’d booked his flight “last minute at the cheapest possible fare.”  At both levels, money carries with it the whiff of suspicion, and as the story progresses its portrayal of Arsenault’s character grows increasingly darker, and Jeff’s character, and story, become increasingly unreliable. As our understanding of the nature of their fortunes grows, so too does our suspicion that something inevitably tragic lies at the end of it. There is something ominous about wealth in itself, especially at its most rarefied levels.  Its necessary accompaniments, power and sex hang in the wings, and Wilson points the reader to the shadows they cast.

That said, this isn’t a story to stand around too long musing about itself. This is a compact novel, with only a single story to tell, and Wilson intends to tell it well. I rather like the idea of a short thriller.  Dragged on too long, mounting tension loses its power. At every moment, in Wilson’s story, the reader is ready to rush onward to find what will happen next. This makes for great readability, but what is gained in speed is sometimes lost in depth. The novel suggests more than it can flesh out in its 200 pages, and though Wilson spares us red herrings, false starts, and dead ends for the most part, you can see that there are some diversions he could have taken to give us a more complete picture of the world he has constructed. The hint, for example, that Arsenault’s gallery is involved with money laundering might better have been left unmentioned, if Wilson was unprepared to fully commit to its exploration.

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As Wilson brings his work to its rapid-paced conclusion, he—like a pilot doing everything he can to stick a tight landing—jettisons everything that is not absolutely necessary to the plot so that he can reach his conclusion at the right time, with the right force. I would have preferred to be given a slower, more thoughtful, and more revealing ending, but the one that he provides is powerful and, in retrospect, inevitable. His is a vessel of sleek curves, and the engineering was always in the engine, not in the brakes. These days, not even the rich have time for leisure. This book is an entertainment to be consumed quickly, a postprandial diversion after lunch, the power of the ride it takes us on to be savored only for a few moments before an announcement of evening cocktails.

FICTION
Mouth to Mouth
By Antoine Wilson
Avid Reader Press
Published January 11, 2022



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