The third novel from Teddy Wayne invites us into the elite world of Ivy League college life. But Loner is far from the typical campus narrative. Protagonist and narrator David Federman is less a loner than he is a creep—sometimes irritating, sometimes sympathetic, sometimes merely pathetic. While David experiences his first and only semester at Harvard, Wayne’s novel explores the power and limits of male privilege.
Smart but unpopular in high school, David expects the college experience will fulfill his every fantasy. Within hours, he meets Veronica Wells, a rich and pretty classmate. Despite the evident disparity in their social standing, David endeavors to seduce her with what can best be described as a long con: he plans to befriend her. The first phase of his plot involves registering for the same classes as Veronica. He succeeds with only one: an English literature lecture. He also pursues a romantic relationship with Sara, Veronica’s suitemate, and though Sara proves a generous sexual partner, David is never satisfied by her. For a brief moment, David’s scheme appears to payoff. When it doesn’t, the results are calamitous.
Wayne has a remarkable control of voice. In his three novels and his many short works, he brings a variety of disparate characters to life, inhabiting them through their voices building narrative and backstory into their language. In Loner, the fullness of David’s character, and the sympathy the reader feels for a lonely boy and the frightful sense of entitlement of the middling white male, are apparent in his voice:
What I wanted was impossible; even this starter relationship was in danger of collapse. How foolishly optimistic to think it might somehow lead to you. When Sara came back I’d tell her that we’d made a mistake and should go back to being friends before anyone got hurt.
As if you’d heard my doubts and were telling me not to surrender, that nothing worthwhile was ever acquired without a struggle, the door was unlocked from the hallway. You looked at me with the vague recognition one has for a stranger on the same daily bus commute and walked toward your room.
The novel is an address to Veronica, and David refers to her simply as “you.” The choice of perspective adds a layer of creepiness to David’s odd character and energizes the text, prefiguring a sinister turn of events. Early in the novel, David’s rejection feels imminent, and the reader empathizes. The interjection of the “you” piques our interest. Writing a novel-length missive to an unrequited love is either a threatening act or a tender story of how two lovers first met.
David, of course, never sees a problem with his stalking, never sees himself as the bad guy. He only comprehends that he is different from Veronica’s other suitors. Addressing Veronica is his final, desperate attempt to seduce her.
You emerged from your room in a white silk bathrobe and flip-flops, a towel over your shoulder and a toiletries basket by your side. My eyes flew a brief reconnaissance mission over the terrain of your calves: still bronzed, the elevated plateaus of muscle sloping down defined cliffs to the lower planes of your Achilles tendons. Elegant, lean feet, calloused heels: it looked like you’d spent a lot of time barefoot in the summer. Other guys, the philistines who chugged domestic light beer, might have salivated over the body parts your robe concealed, but I was a connoisseur of your peripheral qualities, an oenophile who sussed out your fruity bouquets and spicy notes.
David’s understanding of love is based on entitlement. He loves Veronica, so he expects her to get with the program and love him back.
Wayne’s novels thrive on satire. In Kapitoil, the satire feeds on the carcass of late capitalism; in The Love Song of Jonny Valentine it tugs at celebrity culture. Loner satirizes the manic pixie dream girl and the idolized narrative of the nerdy outcast triumphing over the popular kids. Wayne twists our expectations. At first, the reader sympathizes with David. He seems worthy of affection, like the down-and-out protagonist of a John Hughes’s film:
I have always envied the depth of female friendships—even the abjectly ostracized seemed to have a soul mate on the margins with them. I’d have trade that for my tenuous coterie of fools.
But David is an anti-hero, childish and irritating. Veronica, the popular, attractive girl, quickly wins over the reader. Wayne succeeds at this reversal by doling out small doses of David’s sincerity. The trickle of sympathy maintains the reader’s bond with David right up until the very end.
At the heart of the novel is David’s transactional understanding of romance. Constructing a misogynistic notion of friendship as a barrier to sex, David wiggles into Veronica’s life under the auspices of befriending her. The novel dismantles the concept of the friend zone by showing what a disingenuous friend David is.
Loner is a fast-moving book that draws on strong character development and voice to compel the reader forward. Wayne’s skillful control of the text keeps the reader interested even as his protagonist grows more unlikable. Loner offers an enticing, if also distressing, examination of white male privilege and its resulting catastrophes.