Just before heading to his first college party as a freshman at Harvard, David Federman calls his mother:
“But things are okay?” she asked.
“Yeah.” My voice cracked. I took a drink of water from a stolen Annenberg cup. “Really good, actually. I even have a nickname everyone calls me. David Defiant.”
“Anna, put your phone on silent,” she chided. “Sorry, what did you say? They call you David Definite? Why’s that?”
“Defi– it’s a long story.”
“You’ll have to tell it to me sometime,” she said. “Listen, we just got to the restaurant, but I’m glad to hear you’re enjoying yourself.”
“I should go, too.”
“Oh? What’re you doing tonight?”
The bass from the Ice Cream Bash turned up. “I’m going to this ice cream party.”
“Sounds fun,” she said. “Remember to take your Lactaid.”
And just like that, Teddy Wayne creates another pitiable incarnation of the Misunderstood White Guy. His third novel, Loner, is crammed with dialogue exchanges such as the one above — humiliating, aggravating, almost hyper realistic. As if to underscore David’s inconsequentiality, his own mother doesn’t even pay attention to what he says; as if to emphasize his uncoolness, she reminds him that he can’t even eat ice cream without first taking a digestoive pill. “Remember to take your Lactaid” — an emasculating directive, a token of overbearing affection reminiscent of Skyler White’s naggy reaction to her husband’s coughing in the Breaking Bad pilot episode: “Did you take your echinacea?”
With Loner, Wayne inducts a new member to the cabal of unhappy white guys in popular culture who don’t understand why they can’t have what they want and who push the boundaries of decency and morality in order to get it. Cue Raskolnikov, Jay Gatsby, Humbert Humbert, Tony Soprano, Walter White — all of them retain a shred of likeability that enables audiences to follow along with their stories. Yet, because of the undivided attention we give them, by the time their stories end we, too, are complicit in the damage that they have caused. We reflect (or not). We learn from these stories (hopefully). We move on.
Should we move on, however, when individuals like Elliot Rodger decide to take revenge on the girls they believe rejected them? Should we move on when people like Dylann Roof believe their destiny is to establish white dominance over other races? Should we move on when Brock Turner spends only six months in prison for rape? In these cases, the damage is as real as the people who caused it, and our first instinct is to ascertain guilt and ensure punishment. Few people feel comfortable investigating and discussing the biographical minutiae and psychological profiles of those who commit heinous crimes, lest it cast them in a murky light by association.
Herein lies the power of fictional literature and those who can wield it. Enter David Federman, a character so detestable (yet in some ways relatable) that readers will be forced to confront the corruption within themselves and in their ostensibly harmless neighbors and peers — a corruption that occurs in the silent moments of childhood and adolescence and culminates when young adults are set loose in places like a college campus.
Through David Federman, individuals like Elliot Rodger, Dylann Roof, and Brock Turner have found their literary counterpart. Now, via a fictional case study, we can dissect the entitlement, the privilege, and the resentment that implode on Internet comment sections, and that lead to rape and murder in the real world. We’d like to think that in most cases, this unfortunate breed of men suffocate from their own anonymity and insignificance in their parents’ basements before ever having a chance to actually hurt someone. After all, what do Elliot Rodger, Dylann Roof, and David Federman all have in common? On any other day before committing their crimes, they were just awkward, milquetoast (albeit angsty) teenage boys. According to certain narratives, one could even see them as victims.
It borders on cliché to argue that aspects of American culture can incubate moral decay, and one manifestation of that moral decay is the perception that the aforementioned people are or were victims themselves. In Loner, Wayne manipulates pernicious aspects of these parts of American culture to show how a harmless nonentity, an underdog, can contain within himself the elements of a criminal, and how dangerous it can be when these elements are acted upon. David Federman, for example, has a serious chip on his shoulder — the result of years of social slights and perceived inconsequentiality. Despite his comfortable upbringing, quality education, and loving family, David’s insecurities foment a slow-burning resentment against the cool kids, the rich kids, and the pretty girls. His acceptance into Harvard functions as the unlikely spark that lights the powder keg.
Speaking of Harvard, Wayne ingeniously casts the Harvard campus as a character in itself. College, after all, is the time and the place for many firsts in the lives of fortunate young Americans: first sexual explorations, first experiences with unlimited alcohol, and in some cases first encounters with race and class and difference in general. Coming to terms with privilege — and the idea that some have have more of it and some have less — remains difficult for those who were born with enough of everything yet who feel stiffed by a system that glamorizes wealth, money, and prestige.
David arrives believing that at Harvard he will get his due. Unfortunately for him, Harvard isn’t the place where he will lose his virginity the first week of college — that honor goes to his equally dorky roommate Stephen, much to David’s frustration. Harvard isn’t where he will find social validation, either. On the contrary: the only person who cares about his existence is frumpy Sara, who appreciates David for who he is but lacks the social cachet he desires in a girlfriend. On the whole, Harvard is actually the place where all of David’s insecurities are compounded and amplified, particularly by the presence of girls like the object of his passions — Veronica Morgan Wells — and the alpha males that attend the exclusive Harvard clubs with her. In this way Loner critiques the system that enables David as much as it critiques David’s personal flaws.
His personal flaws are many. Wayne has counterbalanced David’s unease about his own masculinity with his vehement rejection of aggressive, “alpha” male standards of physicality; his blade-sharp mind and verbal acuity is combined with his inability to empathize with or comprehend those around him; his droll skepticism of sentimentality and unsophistication made more so by his despicable arrogance. David is not afraid to silently pass judgment on his girlfriend’s body, yet he will romanticize the dandruff that Veronica shakes out of her hair and onto her sweater. He’s hyper self-conscious, yet he somehow manages to think that making a pun in a women’s studies class using the words phallus and fallacy would lead to laughter and applause. By the end of the novel, David is so absorbed in his own desires and delusions that he no longer listens to anyone else, not even Veronica, when she tells him to back off.
Wayne also succeeds in another aspect of his storytelling: Loner is no tale of hunter and hunted. The novel subverts many of the tropes that we’ve come to expect from stories about male aggression, particularly the portrayal of women as victims. It’s a testament to Wayne’s spectacular originality and plotting skills that at one point, Veronica solidly undermines her status as the unhappy rich girl stalked by a weirdo, and deals a blow so savage to David’s pride that the reader almost forgets to savor her triumph instead of pitying David. She has her flaws, but she earns the respect of the readers.
This point is crucial. As Wayne makes clear in an interview, “Just because David is an anti-hero doesn’t mean that the object of his desire must, according to fairy-tale logic, conversely be a beacon of virtue.” This doesn’t mean, of course, that Veronica emerges unscathed or that David gets his comeuppance. Anyone who remains up to date with the developments of college campus rape cases will be able to guess what happens.
There’s much more that can be said about Loner, but the bottom line is that Wayne has crafted a magnificent story. Thrilling, engrossing, and infuriating, Loner harks back — in a completely contemporary timbre — to literary classics that create compelling portraits of repellant characters, e.g., Crime and Punishment, The Great Gatsby, Lolita. Wayne’s writing is lush and almost over-the-top at times, yet this ends up suiting his protagonist’s inflated idea of his own talents. Most of all, however, Loner tells a relevant and necessary story, one that can resound with younger readers in particular. At the same time, this story provides a glimpse into the volatile state of discussions about privilege, identity politics, campus safety, and fragile masculinity, it also forces us to ask: who/what created David Federman? And how is it that we keep enabling people like him? Until these questions are confronted, girls will continue to have good reason to be wary of male loners on college campuses nationwide.