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From Barnes & NobleMichael Kimball first caught my attention in 1985 with Firewater Pond, a boisterously comic novel set in rural Maine and populated by an assortment of aging hippies, horny teenagers, and scheming, small town politicians. After much too long a silence, Kimball resurfaced in 1996 with Undone, a suspense novel that marked a major change of artistic direction. Now, a mere four years later, Kimball has published his third novel, Mouth to Mouth. It too is a suspense novel, and it's a beauty: a moody, brooding, Gothic account of murder, madness, and festering family secrets.
Mouth to Mouth opens with a set piece in which most of the elements of the subsequent tragedy move quickly into view. The scene, ironically, is a wedding. Moreen Chambers, 17 years old and very pregnant, has just married a 27-year-old "outlaw" named Randy, a violent, potentially abusive loser who works as an enforcer for a local loan shark. Moreen's mother Ellen, whose own marriage has fallen on difficult times, despises her new son-in-law and foresees nothing but a bleak, unhappy future for her daughter. As Ellen stands contemplating the travesty-in-progress, looking like someone who is "wondering if it's possible to get away with murder," an attractive stranger whispers in her ear: "Actually, it is."
The stranger, it turns out, is Neal Chambers, 24-year-old nephew of Ellen's husband, Scott. Twelve years before, in the wake of his father's suicide, Neal and his mother had left the town of Destin, Maine, behind, and have not been heard from since. As we quickly learn, the "suicide" of Jonathan Chambers was the direct result of an adulterous affair between his brother, Scott, and his wife, April. That 12-year-old tragedy, the details of which have never been fully revealed, dominates the backdrop of the primary narrative, casting a long, remorseless shadow over everything that happens in this book.
Neal is a charismatic figure who exerts a powerful -- and immediate -- erotic hold over Ellen Chambers. Within days of Moreen's wedding, Neal is ensconced at the Chambers's sheep farm, having volunteered to rebuild their dilapidated barn, a task he completes, with almost superhuman efficiency, in 12 days. (Twelve, by the way, is a talismanic number for Neal, and shows up repeatedly throughout the novel.) At the same time, Neal volunteers to help Ellen resolve her son-in-law problem. Ellen's ambiguous response to this offer -- which she neither condones nor actively forbids -- comes back to haunt her when, early in the novel, Randy suffers a sudden "accident" while repairing a leak in the Chamber's dammed-up pond.
The next stage of the novel concerns Ellen's gradual realization that she has allowed a psychopath to enter her life, and that her son-in-law's fate is just a single element in a complex -- and demented -- agenda that Neal has been working toward since his father's suicide, 12 years before. This agenda encompasses Neal's entire family, all of whom have been targeted -- according to a bizarre but precise numerological system -- for punishments that reflect Neal's deeply twisted sense of poetic justice.
Mouth to Mouth is an intelligent, emotionally wrenching novel that does its work on more than one level. First of all, it is a tense, thoroughly professional thriller that becomes more and more absorbing as the narrative progresses. Kimball has the true writer's eye for character, action, and atmosphere, and his novel is filled with vividly constructed sequences -- a protracted drowning, a forbidden erotic encounter between Ellen and Neal, a staged conflagration in the Chambers's newly rebuilt barn, a climactic encounter in a frozen, flooded valley -- that are alternately frightening and hypnotically fascinating.
But the real heart of Mouth to Mouth is Kimball's painstaking portrait of a family collapsing under the combined weight of guilt, silence, and secrecy. As Neal proceeds with his schemes, he locates the fault lines in a damaged family that has more than its share of dysfunctional characteristics to begin with. As Ellen struggles helplessly against the tidal pull of events, her marriage flounders, her personal and professional lives slide simultaneously out of control, and her distant, incommunicative daughter drifts further and further out of reach. Kimball catches all of this with sympathy and precision, and the result is a powerful, sometimes desolating account of the destruction -- and partial reconstruction -- of a deeply vulnerable family. This, more than anything, gives Mouth to Mouth its emotional and dramatic center, lifting it well above the level of its numerous, less ambitious, competitors.