Life in Happenstance: Mouth to Mouth by Antoine Wilson

The Iowa Writers Workshop strikes again.

Seriously, does anyone come out of that program and write a bad book?

Antoine Wilson’s “Mouth to Mouth” is straight up fantastic — a tidy 179-page single sit-down kind of read, that had me muttering out loud to myself and the dog curled up at my feet, “Oh my good god that was a great story.”

Wilson’s off-screen narrator, if you will, is a middle-aged writer traveling to Germany for a book event, when a lengthy flight delay allows for a chance encounter with a long-ago college acquaintance, Jeff Cook — whose desire to share a story for the first time subsequently turns Jeff into the novel’s main protagonist.

Jeff takes his friend back to his heady post-graduation days to explain how he got to where he is today, even in that moment, also headed to Germany but in his case, to check in on one of his art galleries.

I always struggle with how much to give away in a review, in that I don’t want to ruin the joyride for anyone that follows after me, but I do want to remember these characters as best as I can for as long as I can because they are so worthy of attention. Wilson’s prose is gifted in that he breathes life into characters like Jeff, Francis and Chloe without their development feeling contrived, or the narrative forced. The story, dark but so very human, unfolds gracefully and with such ease that as a reader it’s impossible to put down. No one was getting dinner in my house until I finished this.

There were two reasons I initially picked “Mouth to Mouth” up: One, the blurb from Andrew Sean Greer (who wrote the just so very amazing “Less“) who said, “The best book I’ve read in ages.” The other was the Kirkus Reviews commentary on the author flap — “Is destiny something that merely happens to us? Or can we manipulate it to great — or devious — ends? A deliciously nasty morality play in the guise of a thriller.”

That right there sums it up neatly, because that’s what it is — an in-depth, exploratory autopsy of a man’s soul. Does participating in a single heroic act define a person? Can it save more than one life? Change destinies, for better or worse? Jeff’s determination to uncover whether or not his serendipitous walk on a beach was worth it in the long run makes for a wild literary ride. When Francis says, “There’s no reason to be good, Jeff. I can tell you this honestly. No reason,” does Jeff take the pronouncement to heart? You’ll have to pick it up to find out.

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