Cover art for “Mouth to Mouth” owned by Simon & Schuster.

Antoine Wilson’s “Mouth to Mouth” is a storytelling triumph. Published in early January, this novel is intentional, focused and expertly delivered. Wilson captures the reader’s attention from the beginning and holds it all the way to the end. “Mouth to Mouth” lies somewhere in between a fable and traditional literary fiction but pushes past the limits of both genres to create something that leaves the reader questioning their own morality. 

Essentially, “Mouth to Mouth” is a story within a story. The novel opens with our narrator in JFK Airport, waiting to board his flight. By chance, he hears the name of Jeff Cook, encountering an old acquaintance from UCLA who happens to be boarding the same plane. In the narrator’s own words, “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.” After their shared flight was delayed, Jeff and our narrator decide to get a drink while waiting. Through their conversations, Jeff steers the discussion towards talking about near-death experiences, eventually telling our narrator, “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.” 

This “near-death experience” came to Jeff while on an early morning beach walk to clear his head. Coming off the heels of an intense breakup, Jeff was seeking clarity on his expedition. While there, Jeff comes across a man floating face down in the ocean. Jeff quickly decides he would rather not be a bystander to another man’s death and pulls the stranger out of the water and uses mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to save his life. Once the lifeguards come, Jeff is quickly pushed aside to allow the medics to care for the stranger. Jeff is obviously shaken up from this experience, especially after already being in a fragile emotional state from the breakup; in the week that follows, Jeff finds himself borderline obsessed with discovering the identity of this man, going back to the site of the event and talking to the lifeguards who helped save the stranger. This event turns out to be the catalyst for what comes next in Jeff’s story.

After getting the swimmer’s name — Francis Arsenault — and address from the lifeguard, Jeff’s curiosity grows, leading him to drive to Francis’s house. Jeff finds that the address the lifeguard gave was for a house Francis was building. Without a Francis sighting as he had hoped, Jeff decides to look him up online and finds out Francis works as an art gallery owner. Jeff then begins to purposely put himself in positions to cross paths with Francis, hoping the man will recognize him. Without giving too much away, Jeff entrenches himself deeply into Francis’s life, beginning with getting a job as a receptionist at Francis’s gallery. Jeff’s story only grows more warped and complex, eventually leading to an unexpected final twist. Wilson’s masterful plot development is one of the main reasons “Mouth to Mouth” is such a strong novel. 

Wilson never really allows the reader to learn about the narrator (besides a few facts at the end of the novel). Through this unique format, Wilson gives the reader glimpses into Jeff’s thinking, mostly through small bits of dialogue with the narrator. This intentional framing device works hand in hand with the layered plot to make the novel that much more engrossing by further developing the character of Jeff, who is, by nature, a thoroughly unreliable narrator. It’s unclear throughout the entire novel whether you can trust his testimony, as Jeff constantly embellishes and underplays his participation in his own story. The reader is forced to question the nature of the other personalities in Jeff’s story, and even Jeff himself. Is Francis really the person Jeff describes him to be? Is Jeff even the person he describes himself as? The reader only has the chance to learn about Francis and Jeff from Jeff’s own words, leaving the reader to decide what is real. 

The narrator’s reticence helps build up the larger-than-life character of Jeff by contrast. I’ve met plenty of people who remind me of Jeff — charismatic and magnetic. People like Jeff allow you to sink back into yourself a bit, allowing their personalities to come to the forefront of any and every situation. Jeff’s character allows the narrator to act as the muted background to Jeff’s bright color, making aspects of Jeff’s personality more visible and vibrant. 

“Mouth to Mouth” also raises major implications for our digital age that I’m not sure were intentional. Much of the messaging in the story seemed more focused on questions of judgment, truth and identity, but are still applicable to the online spaces we often occupy. Jeff, in a sense, creates a parasocial relationship with Francis from the start. Jeff knew everything about Francis, whereas Francis wasn’t aware of Jeff’s existence. Granted, much of Jeff’s knowledge of Francis came from following him around, but in the age of Instagram, that much isn’t even necessary. You can know everything about a celebrity, your middle school crush’s current girlfriend, your friend’s friend’s cousin or that random girl from your psych class with a simple search through social media. And wow! There’s so much to know. Check Venmo, and you’ll see which of their roommates pays the electric bill and where they prefer to get late-night drunk food. Twitter? You’ll see what trends they’re following and what topics inspire them to retweet. The ways of accumulating knowledge and the kinds of details available continue to grow. It’s easy, with the incredible amount of information, to feel like you almost know someone, celebrity or otherwise, from stalking their social media. But as the thought-provoking “Mouth to Mouth” shows us, perceptions aren’t everything. Jeff might know the inner workings of Francis’s family, where he likes to vacation or what he gets up to after work, but he never really knows Francis. What is real can only be judged by your own experiences. 

To me, “Mouth to Mouth” felt like I was reading a work of art rather than a book due to its masterful construction. The novel is skillful, truly captivating and leaves the reader questioning whose side they’re on. The morality questions this book inspires have left me thinking days after finishing it, and I’m not sure there will ever be another book like it. 

Daily Arts Writer Isabella Kassa can be reached at