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In ‘Mouth to Mouth,’ a Tom Ripley-like storyteller spins a mesmerizing yarn

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The unnamed narrator of Antoine Wilson’s “Mouth to Mouth” doesn’t spend much time talking about himself. In the rush of the novel’s opening pages, he lets on that he is a middle-aged father of two, an alumnus of UCLA, a little-known author with possible cult status in Germany and stuck in the purgatory of JFK airport awaiting a delayed flight. What else? He’s traveling alone, hasn’t touched alcohol in eight years and is “taking a much-needed break from family obligations.”

At least he was. The story the man is telling took place at some point in the past — Wilson suggests 2010 — and holds within it yet another incident that occurred about 20 years earlier. That second story isn’t even about him. It concerns Jeff Cook, a former classmate the man barely knew but who, he admits, “was one of those minor players from the past who claimed for himself an outsize role in my memories.”

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By chance, he and Cook are booked on the same flight to Frankfurt. After some small talk, Cook invites the man to wait out the delay with him in the first-class lounge. “Everything about him conveyed neatness and taste,” the writer, conscious of his “scuffed sneakers” and “scruffy backpack,” says of Cook, who at UCLA resembled “a sort of thrift-store Adonis” with “cascading hair” and “high, broad cheekbones.” More chitchat follows, the two exchange a couple of faded college memories, and then, with obvious calculation, Cook launches into the story — a confession, really — that will dominate the remainder of the men’s time in airport limbo as well as this brisk novel’s 65 chapters, some covering no more than a page.

If all that makes “Mouth to Mouth” sound a bit traditional, then good. It is, and refreshingly so. Like his characters, Wilson is a first-rate yarn spinner. Cook’s Tom Ripley-like story — and the wary narrator’s retelling of it — is loaded with fateful encounters, hidden agendas, shrouded identities, adulterous betrayals and brushes with death.

Wilson has been here before. His debut novel, “The Interloper,” is a solid, if sometimes predictable, first-person recollection of a revenge plot that went horribly south. That book’s follow-up, “Panorama City,” is terrific — a deathbed chronicle from an eccentric man-child who, in the end, discovers he isn’t dying, after all. In both novels, the narrators are acutely aware of their preposterousness. They question their memories and motives, and understand that by sharing their stories, they are relinquishing ownership of them. “I just want you to keep in mind that what we see, what we think we see, I should say, is always changed by the words in our heads,” the narrator of “Panorama City” says in a message to his unborn son.

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Cook, too, is aware that his story may be hard for his audience to believe, particularly because he admits to having never shared it with anyone before. Insisting that his former classmate’s “appearing out of nowhere must have sparked some old circuitry” in his brain, Cook recounts how, in his early 20s, he brought a drowned man back to life on Santa Monica beach. His initial curiosity about the man he rescued — a Beverly Hills art dealer named Francis Arsenault — gives way to parasitic obsession.

“I didn’t think I’d saved a saint,” Cook says, “I hadn’t expected to, everyone has their flaws. I wanted him to be good, though, I wanted to feel that I had done a good thing not only for him but for all the people he came in contact with.”

Cook infiltrates Arsenault’s personal and professional lives. While keeping his true identity secret (“there’s power in being a cipher,” he says), Cook lands a job at Arsenault’s gallery, begins a relationship with the man’s daughter and becomes a party to the dealer’s manipulations and schemes. Both men are like walking NFTs, their artifice obvious to anyone who’s not willing to be had.

The narrator of “Mouth to Mouth” can be counted among the skeptics, mostly. The novel’s cleverest trick is how he and Cook interrogate their roles as storyteller and audience. He listens to his old acquaintance’s monologue through “an increasing indefinable discomfort” that he is being used, while accepting the ego boost he gets from playing Cook’s confessor. (“He knew I was a writer.”) Cook, meanwhile, asserts that he’s merely acting on instinct by spilling his guts to him. “Who better than someone who was there at the beginning?” he asks.

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Cook gives himself away only after reaching the end of his story. “Now it’s yours,” he tells the narrator. “It’s out there. Do with it what you will.”

Wilson makes much the same offer to readers with this sly and energetic novel. Take him up on it.

Jake Cline is a writer and editor in Miami.

Mouth to Mouth

By Antoine Wilson

Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster. 192 pp. $26

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