How murder shaped Antoine Wilson’s new book “Mouth to Mouth”

On the shelf

mouth to mouth

By Antoine Wilson
Avid Reader: 192 pages, $ 26

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For Antoine Wilson, murder is never far.

The author of Panorama City, The Interloper and this month’s novel Mouth to Mouth loves to talk about his family. His wife, Chris, is a Hollywood screenwriter who worked on Law & Order, and Chris’ late father, producer Richard Levinson, has worked on classic series such as “Columbo” and “Murder, She Wrote”. Wilson also speaks openly about real life murder, which broke his young life apart (and then became a real staple). The effect this has had on his fiction isn’t always that superficial, but it’s always there.

“Mouth to Mouth” has echoes of a murder mystery, although it is more of a caper crossed with a moral parable told by an unreliable narrator. Whether it is a murder is open. Perspective is everything.

The novel begins in a neat setting with an airport encounter between an unnamed narrator and an estranged friend, Jeff Cook, from the narrator’s college days at UCLA. Twenty years after graduating, the two men couldn’t be more different. The narrator flies economy and accepts an invitation to join his old friend in a prime lounge, where Jeff begins telling an awkward story about the time he did the mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on a Santa Monica beach Saved lives. Resuscitated, the man doesn’t say thank you and Jeff wants to understand why.

It turns out that the man he saved is a well-known Los Angeles art dealer named Francis Arsenault, and Jeff goes to see him. Whether the savior craves attention or something more transactional doesn’t matter until the middle of the book, when he has secured his place not only as Arsenault’s deputy (and thus as a key broker in the breakneck world of the visual arts), but also as a lover of Arsenault’s beautiful beauty, unstable daughter Chloe.

Jeff’s story takes more nasty twists and turns, dizzying strokes of fate that lead to a final twist that raises questions about guilt, truth, evil, and even the moral weight of a human life. It’s a long way to go for a short book, and it took the author a long time to get there.

Wilson grew up in Montreal, the youngest child of a successful surgeon “who had many sons,” he says. “Three with his first wife and three with his second, my mother.” When Wilson was seven, his father decided to move his second family – many: Fresno, Santa Monica, Saudi Arabia, back to Santa Monica. One of the reasons for the frequent moves was the kidnapping and murder of Wilson’s half-brother Eric in 1978.

“He was 19 and was driving across the country to visit us,” says Wilson. “His Volkswagen bus broke down and a couple of drifters helped him fix it in exchange for a ride. They stole the bus and murdered it because they didn’t want a witness for the theft. “

Wilson tells the story clearly, but looks down as he continues. “He was missing for months. It was terrible, the atmosphere at home so tense. There was a John Zaritsky documentary called ‘Just Another Missing Kid’ that was shown on a Canadian series called ‘The Fifth Estate’, much like our ’60 Minutes’. “

He takes a breath. “A few years later, he won an Oscar for documentary. It is strange. What did i understand I understood that he had been murdered, that he was dead, and that there was some kind of wake for him, but there was no corpse. Much of it only met me as an adult and I was able to bring my own life experience to bear in these facts. ”At that time, the“ little French-Canadian boy ”could not believe – let alone the transformation of his brother’s death into a television event.

Wilson took his own cross-country trip years later to graduate school at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. On the way he accidentally stopped “in North Platte, the worst place because Eric had been there when he met the Drifters”.

His brother’s killer, Raymond Hatch, was paroled at the time. “I thought, ‘What if I go to the hotel bar and sit down and have a drink and Hatch is right next to me?’ He’s dead now, but you’re wondering, ‘Would I put a cap on someone who murdered my sibling?’ Yes. I could probably do that. ”He considers that experience has left him with two questions: what is justice, and are there people who just shouldn’t take advantage of the doubt? It was the beginning of yet another journey for Wilson in which he reckoned with the loss of his family to fiction.

He wrote a short story about the murder in Iowa, “a mixture of memory and imagination of the time.” But his novels would examine those bigger questions – about justice, goodness, and retribution. His 2007 debut, The Interloper, follows a troubled narrator out to avenge the murder of his brother-in-law. It contains the line, “It is the noblest mistake to see humanity in everyone” – which the novelist Jess Walter quoted in his review of the book for the Times. Wilson’s successor “Panorama City” from 2012 took a different path; As Adam Ross wrote in the New York Times, “The author’s gaze is skyward, toward the sanity and good in all of us.”

“Mouth to Mouth,” I suggest to Wilson, marks a return to skepticism towards humanity, including himself. He recognizes this as a fair observation – and again refers to his somewhat unstable upbringing. “I had to adapt to different environments and social situations,” he says. “Some people are just weird, aren’t they? I grew up feeling like I wasn’t particularly normal, but I really wanted to belong. I’m just glad some of the people who wrote in my seventh year yearbook said I was a nice guy. “

Could a character in “Mouth to Mouth” be described as “a nice guy”? Wilson says Jeff wants to believe it is him, “and that’s sort of the focus of the book. You can imagine Jeff coming home and singing, “How did I get here?” like The Talking Heads. “

Wilson isn’t sure how Mouth to Mouth got here, but he knows it’s a long time coming. He recently cleaned up his computer and found a file: “AirportStory.TXT”. “It describes a name called up through the PA system, like Jeff’s for the narrator; the biography of a person in the art world I knew long ago; and the image of the fireworks from above that lands on the first page. Exactly these three things from 20 years ago that have been circling in my head since then. “

The premise of a man who is ungrateful to his rescuer also goes back decades: “At the end of the 1990s, I prevented a man from walking in front of a train. He didn’t do it on purpose, but I saved his life and he said, ‘I’m going to buy you a big steak dinner!’ Then the train drove by, it went on, and that was it. I never got my steak dinner! ”Wilson laughs. “It’s an interesting moment when people intersect in this way. Unlike murder, it’s not a taboo, but it has the same power. What do you owe someone who will save your life? “

Such dilemmas are the engines of fiction. Wilson is understandably more ambivalent about murder and all of its conversations.

“In my wife’s parents’ house,” he says, “there are books about murder everywhere, and that has to do with character, who people are when it comes to the highest possible effort. But to have seen my brother’s murder? I still don’t love real crime. “

Patrick is a freelance reviewer who tweeted @TheBookMaven.

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