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Mouth to Mouth

A Novel

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About The Book

ONE OF BARACK OBAMA’S FAVORITE BOOKS OF 2022 * An NPR and Time Best Book of the Year * Longlisted for the 2022 Scotiabank Giller Prize (Canada) * Finalist for CALIBA’s 2022 Golden Poppy Awards

A successful art dealer confesses the story of his meteoric rise in this “powerful, intoxicating, and shocking” (The New York Times) novel that’s a “slow burn à la Patricia Highsmith” (Oprah Daily). “You’ll struggle not to rip through in one sitting” (Vogue).


In a first-class lounge at JFK airport, our narrator listens as Jeff Cook, a former classmate he only vaguely remembers, shares the uncanny story of his adult life—a life that changed course years before, the moment he resuscitated a drowning man.

Jeff reveals that after that traumatic, galvanizing morning on the beach, he was compelled to learn more about the man whose life he had saved, convinced that their fates were now entwined. But are we agents of our fate—or are we its pawns? Upon discovering that the man is renowned art dealer Francis Arsenault, Jeff begins to surreptitiously visit his Beverly Hills gallery. Although Francis does not seem to recognize him as the man who saved his life, he nevertheless casts his legendary eye on Jeff and sees something worthy. He takes the younger man under his wing, initiating him into his world, where knowledge, taste, and access are currency; a world where value is constantly shifting and calling into question what is real, and what matters. The paths of the two men come together and diverge in dizzying ways until the novel’s staggering ending.

Sly, suspenseful, and “gloriously addicting” (BuzzFeed), Mouth to Mouth masterfully blurs the line between opportunity and exploitation, self-respect and self-delusion, fact and fiction—exposing the myriad ways we deceive each other, and ourselves.

Excerpt

Chapter 1 1
I sat at the gate at JFK, having red-eyed my way from Los Angeles, exhausted, minding my own business, reflecting on what I’d seen the night before, shortly after takeoff, shortly before sleep, something I’d never seen before from an airplane.

I’d been on the left side of the plane, and we’d gone south over the ocean, accident of fate, affording me a panoramic view of the city at night: amber streetlights dotting neighborhoods; red-stripe, white-stripe garlands of freeway traffic; mysterious black gaps of waterways and parkland. Then a small burst of light, not at ground level but above it. Another burst of light, streaks opening like a flower in time lapse. A fireworks show. I watched the little explosions until we penetrated the cloud layer.

It wasn’t a holiday.

I was thinking about how a sight that might consume our attention completely on the ground could, from another perspective, barely register as a blip on an enormous field, when I heard a name over the PA.

“Jeff Cook,” the agent said. “Please check in at the counter for Gate Eleven.”

A common enough name, but it piqued my attention. I had known a Jeff Cook once, at UCLA, almost twenty years earlier. Looking up, I saw a handsome man in his forties striding toward the counter. He was dressed in a sharp blue suit, no tie, glasses with transparent Lucite frames. Expensive leather loafers. He said his name to the gate agent and slid his boarding pass and identification across the counter. While she clicked away at the noisy keyboard, he leaned slightly on the handle of his fancy hard-shelled roll-aboard suitcase.

From where I sat near the gate, I could examine this Jeff Cook closely, in profile. I had all but determined that he wasn’t the Jeff Cook I’d known and was going to turn my attention elsewhere, when he looked in my direction. I knew those high, broad cheekbones and that penetrating gaze.

It was he. But Jeff had had famously long, dark flowing hair, not this cropped salt-and-pepper business. Plus he’d put on weight, become more solid in the way so many of us did after college, continuing to grow into manhood long after we thought we’d arrived.

We hadn’t been friends, exactly, barely acquaintances, but Jeff was one of those minor players from the past who claimed for himself an outsize role in my memories.

During my freshman year I experienced a series of encounters, if they could even be called that, in various locations on and off campus, with a fellow student who had, for some reason or another, caught my attention. With his cascading hair and distinctive features, he was hard to miss, a sort of thrift-store Adonis, and he carried himself with the quiet confidence of an upperclassman. We didn’t cross paths so much as he would just pop up from time to time, at a table in the corner of a coffee shop, wandering around a protest for the first Gulf War, or—most randomly—lit up by my car’s reverse lights as I backed out of a friend’s driveway one night. Every sighting of this mystery man yielded a frisson, as if he were my guardian angel keeping tabs on me, followed by a pang of anxiety at the thought that I might never see him again.

Near the end of that year, I went with a friend to buy weed from an acquaintance of his, a fellow stoner who had picked up a little extra to hook up his buddies and make a few bucks in the process. We swung by an apartment building on Gayley, an ugly multiunit box. The shabby security vestibule opened on an elevator that stank of rancid hydraulic fluid. Upstairs, the hallway was anonymous and bland, but the apartment had a distinctive grotto-like atmosphere, the windows covered over with bedsheets and the walls festooned with posters, all of them for the same band, a band I had never heard of: Marillion. We stood awkwardly in the middle of the living room while a line of stoned residents deliquesced into the couch in front of us, eyes more wary than friendly. At the end of the couch, as stoned as the rest of them, sat my long-haired guardian angel. My friend got the pot, and, perhaps to make the visit seem less transactional, his friend made introductions around the room. I learned the name of the mystery man, a name not nearly as mysterious as he was: Jeff.

First quarter of sophomore year, there he was again, in Cinema and Social Change. Every Tuesday and Thursday, in Melnitz Hall, his myth disintegrated further, the slow grind of familiarity rendering him into just another undergrad, a fellow non-film major as clueless as I was about the movies we were discussing. This process struck me as curious. Over the years, it would spring to mind whenever I found myself having to deal with people whose fame summoned in me an irrational but persistent agitation.

The gate agent bent behind the counter to retrieve something from the printer. She handed Jeff his identification and boarding pass. He thanked her and turned to go. When he came past me, I said his name.

He looked at me quizzically.

“Yes?” he said.

“UCLA,” I said.

His eyebrows went up behind those Lucite frames.

“Jesus,” he said. “You look exactly the same. Plus twenty years or so, but you know what I mean.”

I wondered if he was trying to place me. I started to say my name, but he beat me to it.

“That’s me,” I said.

“Names and faces,” he said, tapping his temple. “It’s a thing.”

Oh God, I thought, he’s become a salesman.

He put out his hand to shake.

“That film class,” he said. “I remember. Only one I ever took.”

“Same.”

“Almost failed it. Couldn’t stay awake in the dark. The whole thing felt like a dream.”

“You didn’t miss much,” I said. I didn’t mean it, but I was making conversation.

He smiled and took me in for a moment. “Hey, why don’t you join me in the first-class lounge? I’ve got an extra pass.”

“What about the flight?”

He pointed at the display above the gate. We’d been delayed.

I had already spent hours in the airport, my tickets having been purchased last minute and at the cheapest possible fare—a red-eye from LA, a layover at JFK, a flight to Frankfurt, a four-hour train ride to Berlin—and the idea of a first-class lounge was so appealing I could have hugged old Jeff right there and then.

I trailed him through the terminal, his soft-leather briefcase and fresh-looking roll-aboard making me wish I’d replaced my scruffy backpack with something more adult. The terminal wasn’t packed, but it was crowded enough that we made better progress single file than two abreast. His hair was cropped cleanly in a line above his collar. Everything about him conveyed neatness and taste. In college I’d never seen him in nice clothes, only ripped-up jeans and weathered T-shirts worn inside-out to obscure whatever was written on them. Whether this was fashion or indigence was never clear to me.

The whole way from gate to lounge elevator, as I followed him and the rhythmic ticktock of his bag’s wheels across the terminal’s tiles, he didn’t once look back to make sure I was following. I wondered if he was having second thoughts about inviting me into the land of the fancy people. I hoped I hadn’t seemed too desperate when accepting his offer.

At the elevator, he was back to normal, or how he had been at the gate, delighted at the coincidence and looking forward to catching up, though as far as I knew we didn’t have much to catch up on.

I presumed that he was one of those people who hated being alone. Perhaps if I’d been paying closer attention, or if I’d known what was to come, I’d have detected a glimmer of desperation in his eyes. I don’t know. Maybe it wasn’t there, not yet.

We checked into the lounge at a marble counter, where an officious young man took my pass and waved us in, letting us know that they would be announcing when it was time for us to head down to the gate. Jeff found seats by the window, a low table between them, and gestured for me to sit, as if he were my host. The chair was real leather and the table real wood. He offered to grab a few beers. I hadn’t had a drink in eight years but said that I’d be happy to watch him drink. He made for the food area, leaving his bags. Even in the airport’s privileged inner sanctum, I couldn’t look at the unattended bags without imagining they contained contraband, or a bomb. I put it out of my mind. My mantra for air travel has always been: Stop thinking. From the moment one enters the airport, one is subject to a host of procedures and mechanisms designed to get one from point A to point B. Stop thinking and be the cargo.

Jeff strolled up, two beers in hand. He put one in front of me, announcing that he’d found a nonalcoholic brew, and that he wasn’t sure if I drank them, but he thought it might make things feel more ceremonial—that was the word he used—for us to catch up over a couple of beers, alcoholic or not, for old times’ sake. We had never drunk together that I could remember, but I let it go. We clinked bottles and sipped, our eyes turning to the plane traffic outside.

“The miracle of travel,” he said. “Fall asleep someplace, wake up halfway around the world.”

“I can’t sleep on planes,” I said.

“I know a woman,” he said, “friend of a friend, you could say, who is terrified of flying but has to travel to various places every year for family obligations. Only flies private, by the way, this is a very wealthy person. And here’s what she does. An anesthesiologist comes to her house, knocks her out in her own bed, travels with her to the airport, to wherever she’s going, unconscious, and when they arrive at the destination, she’s loaded into whatever bed she’s staying in, whether it’s one of her other homes or a hotel, and he brings her back. She literally goes to sleep in one place and wakes up in another.”

“Someone should do that for us in economy,” I said. “You could fit a lot more people on every flight. Sardine style.”

Jeff sipped his beer.

“You have business in Frankfurt?” he asked, his eyes passing over my scuffed sneakers.

“Berlin,” I said. “My publisher is there.”

I didn’t mention that I was traveling on my own dime, hoping to capitalize on a German magazine’s labeling me a “cult author.” Or that I was also taking a much-needed break from family obligations, carving out a week from carpools and grocery shopping to live the life readers picture writers live full-time.

“I can’t imagine writing a book,” he said.

“Neither can I.”

I’d said it before and meant it every time, but people always took it as an expression of false modesty.

Jeff laughed slightly. His demeanor changed, and I expected him to ask if he should have heard of any of my books. Instead, he asked if I’d ever gone under.

“I had my tonsils out in high school.”

“Did you worry you wouldn’t wake up?”

I shook my head. “Didn’t cross my mind. Though were I to go under now, I wouldn’t be so cavalier.”

“You have kids.”

“Two.”

“Changes everything, doesn’t it?”

He had undergone surgery recently, nothing serious, or not life-threatening at least, but he had ended up terrified that he wouldn’t wake up again. It did happen to people. And though such accidents had become exceedingly rare, he couldn’t help but imagine his going to sleep and never waking up, what it would do to his children—he had two as well—and to his wife. The whole episode had disturbed him greatly.

“Sleep is the cousin of death,” I said.

Outside, a jumbo jet came in for a landing, too high and too fast and too far down the runway, at least to my eyes, and maybe to Jeff’s too, since he watched it as well, but it came down fine, slowed dramatically, and made for the taxiway like any other plane. All the activity outside—the low vehicles buzzing around, the marshalers and wing walkers guiding planes with their orange batons, the food service trucks lifting and loading, the jetways extending, the segmented luggage carts rumbling across the tarmac—all of it vibrated under the gray sky like a Boschean tableau.

While I had been watching, he had been hunting down a thought.

“Coming out of surgery,” he said, “waking up in the recovery room, foggy as hell, I didn’t feel the sense of relief I had expected to feel—that only came later when I saw my family again. I felt like I’d lost a chunk of time. Like sleep, but when you sleep you wake up where you went down. I felt that things had happened to me without my knowledge, which they had, of course, and I was left with the uncanny sense that I wasn’t the same person who had gone under. Time had passed, a part of my body was no longer in me, I had had a square shaved from my leg for some kind of circuit-completing electrode, but I was still I, obviously. Now, this may have been a side effect of the drugs, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d only just arrived in the world, as a replacement for the old me. It wore off, as I said, but it wasn’t a pleasant state.”

“Like a near-death experience?” I asked.

“Funny you should say that,” Jeff said, as if he hadn’t just nudged the conversation in that direction. “I ended up in close proximity to one once. Not long after college, in fact, a year or so later. I was, through no planning or forethought on my part, responsible for saving a man’s life.”

I wondered why he emphasized “no planning or forethought” when that would have been the default.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Let me grab a few more beers first.”

“No, no,” I said. “These are on me.”

“They’re free.”

“Let me get them, then.”

He settled into his chair.

I rose and made my way past a variety of travelers, from business types to trust fund hipsters, many of them speaking foreign languages. They weren’t so different from their counterparts downstairs, other than not looking like they were undergoing an ordeal. I ordered beers from the dour bartender. It was not quite noon. When I returned to our table and handed Jeff a bottle, he raised it for another toast.

“Running into you was serendipitous,” he said. “You were there at the beginning.”

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Mouth to Mouth includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Antoine Wilson. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

Marooned at JFK in between flights from Los Angeles to Frankfurt, our nameless narrator hears a name over the loudspeaker. It’s Jeff Cook, a fellow UCLA alum who stands out in the narrator’s mind despite their barely being acquaintances. Formerly a “thrift-store Adonis,” Jeff now embodies a familiar relationship with luxury, and after a warm reintroduction to the narrator, he invites him to the first-class lounge. Seated by the window drinking the bar’s complimentary beers, Jeff begins to recount a dramatic turning point in his life. One day before dawn, fresh from a breakup with his college girlfriend, he drove to the beach, where he happened to see a man floating facedown and motionless in the early morning surf. He saves his life, and the man is whisked away by paramedics. Once stagnant, Jeff becomes fixated on the person he will learn is Francis Arsenault, a notorious, high-powered art dealer in Beverly Hills. His obsession leads him to a receptionist job at Francis’s gallery, setting off a series of favors, chance encounters, and deceptions that leave the narrator—and the reader—second-guessing all that came before.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. Mouth to Mouth opens with the narrator reflecting on his recent red-eye. Soon after that, he and Jeff Cook reunite, and the latter shares a story of a woman who only flies unconscious, as well as his feelings about going under general anesthesia for a surgery. How do the themes of these narratives—and the rest of the lead-up to Jeff’s saga, including the narrator’s memories and observations—echo throughout the novel?

2. What words would you use to describe Wilson’s writing style? How does his attention to detail impact your reading of the book and its ideas?

3. Two paintings command longer descriptions in Mouth to Mouth: the one that hangs in Francis’s office, and the large diptych that catches Jeff’s eye in Sotheby’s (p. 97 and p. 130). Perform a close reading of the passages in the context of both characters. Is there a deeper meaning to be gleaned?

4. Compare and contrast airport-lounge Jeff with younger Jeff. What adjectives would you use to describe him? Can you pinpoint moments when the younger Jeff starts to resemble present-day Jeff? Even if Jeff was obscuring the ways in which he and Francis are similar, can you identify traits the two men might share?

5. Although the central drama of Mouth to Mouth is between Jeff and Francis (and arguably the narrator), other characters—specifically women—play a major part in the book. In what ways do G, Chloe, Alison, and Astrid affect the trajectory of the plot? How do they each exercise control?

6. Brainstorm some minor characters—for example, Andrea, Saskia, Dennis, and Alex Post. Fill in their lives; what kind of people are they?

7. Consider if, instead of the narrator mediating Jeff’s story, Wilson wrote Mouth to Mouth only from Jeff’s perspective. Does the inclusion of a narrator make it easier or more difficult to form your own opinions? Do you find him trustworthy?

8. Jeff is obsessed with his perceived goodness, and he provides few details that make Francis out to be anything other than an asshole. Do you think the novel makes a case for what makes a moral or corrupt person? How does it comment on the human condition?

9. Jeff’s story seems to have many endings: when he leaves Francis on the mountain, the immediate aftermath of the man’s death and its consequences in Jeff’s life, and the novel’s final line. Knowing all this information, what do you think really happened? What does it mean for your reading experience that the reveal is left ambiguous?

10. Find a sentence or scene in Mouth to Mouth that especially struck you. What is it about this moment that affected you?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Put together a list of other novels that explore art, identity, corruption, and the tangled webs we weave, and discuss how these selections connect to Mouth to Mouth. How does form affect your reading? What did you appreciate about Wilson’s approach?

2. Split up into pairs and imagine you find yourself in Jeff and the narrator’s position: happening upon a person from your past. Write a scene about a pivotal moment in one character’s life in the style of Jeff’s story and the narrator’s commentary. Bonus points if you cast doubt on the storyteller in subtle ways. When everyone is finished, take turns sharing with the rest of the group.

3. Cast the film or miniseries adaptation of Mouth to Mouth. Would Mick Jagger make a cameo as himself?

About The Author

Photo Credit: Noah Stone

Antoine Wilson is the author of the novels Panorama City and The Interloper. His work has appeared in The Paris ReviewStoryQuarterlyBest New American Voices, and the Los Angeles Times, among other publications, and he is a contributing editor of A Public Space. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and recipient of a Carol Houck Smith Fiction Fellowship from the University of Wisconsin, he lives in Los Angeles. His website is: AntoineWilson.com.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster (January 17, 2023)
  • Length: 208 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982181819

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Raves and Reviews

“A slow burn à la Patricia Highsmith that keeps us terminally off balance.” Oprah Daily

“Psychologically complex and suspenseful until the literal last sentence, it uses every word of its 200 or so pages to the fullest.” NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour

“[An] enthralling literary puzzle… Wilson is a gorgeous writer, pulling you in and compelling you to keep reading. The story, and the story-within-the-story — the twists and turns, the attention lavished on motivation and emotion, the efforts to rationalize or at least explain strange or unsavory behavior — recall the cool prose of Paul Auster… This powerful, intoxicating book’s greatest tension is that we have no idea where it is heading, right up to the shocking final sentence.” —Sarah Lyall, The New York Times

“[A] taut, compulsive chamber piece of a novel, which you’ll struggle not to rip through in one sitting… Mouth to Mouth is an elegantly told and supremely gripping tale of serendipity and deception—and delivers a brilliant ending that will leave you guessing about everything that came before.” Vogue

“Wilson is a first-rate yarn spinner… [a] sly and energetic novel.”The Washington Post

“Incredibly taut, with funny and brilliantly described scenes of the Los Angeles art world... [Mouth to Mouth is] powered by a kind of ominous propulsive forward momentum right up until the very end, which is unexpected and inevitable, as all the best endings are.” Vanity Fair

“A gloriously addicting tale of decisions and deception… Despite the story being a short once, it doesn’t lack suspense — and Wilson’s ending delivers.” —Buzzfeed

“Antoine Wilson’s Mouth To Mouth is the best book I’ve read in ages. Narratively ingenious, delicately written, intriguingly plotted, it is literature of the highest quality. I see you now, dear Reader, with this novel in your hand and already losing track of time….” —Andrew Sean Greer, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Less

Mouth to Mouth is that rarity, a perfect narrative machine, working by its own laws. The cool nervous clarity of the prose enmeshes the reader in a trap of complicity, one snapping shut on narrator and reader at the same instant. Bravo.” —Jonathan Lethem, author of The Fortress of Solitude

"By the end of the slim volume Antoine Wilson has made sure to wallop the reader with the realization that the story has been eerier than they ever realized." Entertainment Weekly

“A tale of deceit, intrigue, and tested morality...jaw-dropping." Time, A Best Book of the Year

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