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.
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 ... 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 ... sly and energetic.
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 ... 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 ... 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.
In this taut, twisty tale, Jeff’s motivations and decisions are open to debate ... As Francis takes Jeff under his wing, readers will be kept in suspense until the final pages about whether Jeff will ultimately embrace or reject his role as Francis’ savior. Thought-provoking psychological fiction.