Published by Simon & Schuster
Publication date: September 13th 2016
Loner, by Teddy Wayne is a disquieting mix of everything that makes college worth remembering and everything you’d rather forget. David Federman is a high school loner, but he’s not one of the subgroup of computer or science geek elites, he’s just a little odd. What he does have is a way with words, enough so that he’s the only person from his New Jersey school to get into Harvard. Once there he finds himself caught between a new group of similarly awkward friends and his overwhelming crush on the aloof Veronica Morgan Wells, a beauty far beyond his reach.
David quickly lets one English professor’s approval convince him that he is, indeed, brilliant and deserving, even if his fellow classmates don’t recognize it. Into this warped self-view comes Veronica, who allows David to write a paper for her, despite Harvard’s very clear honor codes. This is the Rubicon and once David crosses it, he believes he is Caesar and Veronica is his Rome. If she doesn’t realize or accept him as the true love he knows himself to be he will simply up the ante and force his way into her elite circle of friends and social activities.
Loner begins with a premise most of us can relate to: the freshman battlefield of nerves, hormones and angst that bloodied us all. Reading it elicits cringes of recognition (unless you were the Veronica Morgan Wells type). Wayne re-enacts all the drama of freshman life—meeting the roommate, braving the dining hall alone, where to sit in class, who to hang out with—for sweat inducing anxiety in all but the most poised readers. In this way he gives David some much needed, if only temporary, vulnerability. Sadly, this does not last and by the last third of the novel what was infatuation has devolved into something much different.
Wayne plays with some key issues in contemporary campus life in Loner, but does so in a way that comes off as stereotypical. Veronica is every bitchy pretty rich girl who thinks she owns the world and David is the eternal nerd who falls for this shiksa. Where it gets twisted is the rampant sense of entitlement on both their parts, with David winning for being delusional in his belief about his intellectual abilities. This feeds into the novel’s final scenes, but does so in a way that feels heavy handed and manipulative. The reality of the ending may be all too real, but Wayne takes the easy way out, leaving Loner stuck in the awkward space between coming-of-age fiction and social commentary.