Loner by Teddy Wayne
Teddy Wayne’s third novel Loner is a brave and precise portrait of a tense, prevalent subject. As with the opioid epidemic, sexual assault is undoubtedly widespread yet is too often hushed behind closed doors and sealed lips. Many incidents go unreported due to the persisting stigma. People involved sometimes hold differing opinions as to what constitutes a definition of the act. Enough lawyer firepower can make the incident “go away.” Unlike the more measurable criminal sciences of murder or embezzlement, many variables prove difficult to observe and process. This volatility compounds when the key players are nineteen-year-olds in that naive, larval phase, newly intoxicated by the independence attained in college campus life.
Loner tackles this terrain through one assailant’s perspective, a Harvard freshman named David. Forget imposing jocks or frat-house meatheads; our protagonist is an invisible pushover. Think of his arc as the college campus analogue to Breaking Bad: When we meet David, his resume’s most daring moment is pulling out a USB flash drive before the computer says it is safe to do so. In life thus far he has quietly blended in with the wallpaper.
In the early stages of campus culture, David sees opportunity to climb the social ladder. During freshman orientation he observes clusters of fellow freshmen chatting, a phase during which “taxonomies hadn’t been determined yet, hierarchies hadn’t formed.” Into David’s field of vision enters the gorgeous, well-off Veronica Morgan Wells, who immediately becomes the target of David’s tunnel-vision obsession. He fawns over her sloping cheekbones, mid-October-hued hair, gazelle legs and “lissome” shoulders. The shape and meter of the syllables in her name earn extensive adoration. She’s the Holy Grail of David’s aspirations, and her various cliques and affiliations are expendable means toward attaining her.
Soon begin his cold calculations. He deliberately befriends those in her proximity and manufactures elaborate pretexts to earn facetime. Throughout the narration David refers to Veronica using the second person “you.” While supposedly speaking to her directly, he liberally speculates on her mindset and crafts rationalizations that support her interest in him. (e.g. You ignored all my Facebook messages, but you were probably busy writing your term paper and don’t check your phone much anyway.) David grants himself license to explore Veronica’s psychology, but his denial-fueled inaccuracy is as pronounced as it is pathetic.
As a fictional case study in sexual assault, Loner is far more interested in the “before” than the “after,” but this deliberate focus does not leave the reader shortchanged. In the lead-up, the story drops increasingly disturbing hints toward some impending horror. Some clues come directly from our narrator David, others through deft symbolism. Things do, however, get a bit on-the-nose when David writes an English essay on manic ambition in Moby Dick—and later attends a production of Macbeth—but it’s nothing unforgivable. Teddy Wayne nonetheless writes with effortless, polished prose evocative of Yann Martel, but with an added sinister edge. Endgame revelations reveal a tale more tightly-plotted than your initial impressions. Its final act undoubtedly satisfies, and Wayne adeptly contextualizes his own story within the pertinent news headlines of reality.
Though Loner is undoubtedly excellent, it’s a perplexing book to recommend. Know up front that in this narrative you will inhabit the mind of a calculating introvert who, by some combination of flaws and circumstance, makes many creepy, aggressive choices. More challenging, you may at times find yourself sympathizing with David, who is in part a logical product of the Darwinian drive to matter in a world of alpha dogs. This novel confronts you with the reality that there indeed exist people who derive sexual gratification out of another human’s distress, and they didn’t ask to be that way. In an effort to help society advance, the first step we can take is trying to understand their psychology, so as to better guide them toward rehabilitation. This novel is certainly capable of starting that conversation.