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You save a stranger's life — then what? A new novel explores the aftermath


In 1997, the writer Antoine Wilson was visiting Seattle. He was down by the water with some friends.

ANTOINE WILSON: And this guy was walking along just air drumming - his eyes closed kind of thing. And he was on a collision course with a train, a full-size train.

SHAPIRO: Wilson intervened, got the man's attention.

WILSON: And he turned to me, and he just was like, oh, my God, you saved my life. Then the train goes by. And then he just keeps air drumming, and he just keeps walking. And he's gone.

SHAPIRO: The impact on the stranger's life was clear, but in the years that followed, Antoine Wilson started to think about the difference this fleeting moment made in his own life.

WILSON: I've always found that relationship interesting between a rescuer and someone who's rescued. And well over the past 10 years or so, I've been trying to figure out a form for a story about that kind of relationship.

SHAPIRO: That kind of relationship is at the center of Wilson's new novel, "Mouth To Mouth." At an airport, a man named Jeff runs into an old college classmate. When their flight's delayed, Jeff tells the other man a story that he says he's never shared before about saving someone from drowning many years earlier and his quest to figure out who the stranger was. Ends up, he was a father, an art dealer, a philanderer, among other things. But from the beginning, it isn't clear whether Jeff's impulse to save the drowning man is an act of altruism or something else.

WILSON: For Jeff, he feels like he had a gun to his head essentially, like there was no choice available to him in that moment. And he, in fact, is somewhat traumatized by the event and especially by the fact that nobody acknowledges what he's done in the aftermath, for various reasons.

SHAPIRO: And it becomes even more complicated when Jeff realizes the person whose life he saved is not necessarily a good guy. How does that change the calculus?

WILSON: Yeah, because at least from Jeff's perspective, he looks at everything that's going on in this guy's life and he thinks, you know, to some extent, I'm responsible for this. And I don't think it's as simple as you shouldn't save a bad person's life or that people are very easily defined into good and bad, but I definitely wanted to play with the dynamic of saving someone who's essentially - I guess you'd call him toxic.

SHAPIRO: Although, it's not like he's Hitler or Stalin. He's kind of a jerk and a bully and a philanderer, but he's not somebody, you know, who commits genocide or something.

WILSON: No, no, no. He's just a sort of functional, semi-malignant narcissist type and a perfect figure to dominate the art world or, you know, his little corner of the art world because it is a world that's very manipulable, and he is a master manipulator.

SHAPIRO: Were you interested as well in exploring the idea of paths we take, because this begins with Jeff being aimless and directionless right out of college, right after a breakup. And this event really does shape the course of his life, as we see in this airport lounge where he has nice clothes and a good job and a family and all of that as a result of this one moment.

WILSON: Sure. And then the narrator who started - you know, they were in the same film class together. And the narrator is this sort of shambolic writer who hasn't quite built his life in the same way, at least materially, as Jeff.

I've always been interested in sort of fate's forks, you know, or questions of fate and how when you reach a certain point in your life, you can look back and say, oh, this is why - you know, these are all the things that came together to get me to where I am today. But it's really just, a lot of the time, repackaged serendipity, right? I mean, it's - we look back and we create that story of our lives. And that's essentially the story that Jeff is relaying. And I guess one question is whether he actually believes it or not.

SHAPIRO: Some of the reviews I've read of this described the book as a thriller, as resembling horror - neither of which are words that would have occurred to me to describe this novel. Was that what you had in mind? Have you been surprised to see the reception to it?

WILSON: Oh, yeah. Totally. In fact, it had been reviewed among some other thrillers. And, you know, I was like, well, I didn't mean to write a thriller. But did I write a thriller?

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

WILSON: You know, and I think there's a sort of ongoing tension. There are short chapters. There are things that maybe create a sense of what somebody called a slow-burner page-turner. But for me, it's always been that, you know, the next page should be at least as interesting as the previous page. And I feel like I've also left enough open for readers to interpret this book the way that they'd like to.

SHAPIRO: I also know it's simplistic to talk about what a book is about with a capital A, but my sense of what this book is, quote-unquote, "about" just kept changing as I went through the book. And a lot has been said about the last sentence, which I'm not going to spoil. But up until the last sentence of this book, it's constantly changing.

WILSON: Yeah. Well, I think to some extent, that reflects the composition of the book, but it also reflects the way that identity is slippery in life. Our identities are slippery. And, you know, Jeff is a bit of a salesman of the self. How much we should believe his story comes into question, but also how much he believes it himself is a real central question to the book.

SHAPIRO: Antoine Wilson, it's been great talking with you. Thanks a lot.

WILSON: Likewise. Thanks, Ari.

SHAPIRO: His new book is called "Mouth To Mouth."

(SOUNDBITE OF EX-POETS SONG, "STILL WAITING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Justine Kenin