I have to start with a spoiler warning: it’s hard to write a review about Loner by Teddy Wayne without discussing the ending. I could see the ending long before I finished the book, and even when knowing the ending the real impact of the book is felt through the events that lead up to it. Still, I know that some people hate spoilers catching them off guard, so I’m letting you know now that there will be plenty.
I expected this book to end with rape, and I was right. It is foreshadowed by an argument between the main character, David and his roommate at Harvard about a sexual experience with a girlfriend, Sara, that he soon afterward broke up with (“‘She took out her tampon!’ I repeated. ‘Explain to me how that’s not saying yes!'”). But while the break-up with Sara could have been explained away as a relationship gone awry, it’s overshadowed by the fact that we discover how much of a creep David becomes during the story. He only started dating Sara, after all, in order to get close with her roommate, Veronica—the unfortunate victim at the end of the story.
The entire story is written in first person by David, but often switches to second, as it’s meant to be a letter that he writes to Veronica after the legal battles have died down, against the advisement of his lawyer (being a privileged white male born to two lawyers gets him off scot-free—his privilege and superiority complex also foreshadowed in conversations throughout the book). The reader catches on that David is, or at least becomes, a creep by the first quarter of the book. It’s as if he’s seeing and hearing all of the cues that his behavior and thoughts are abhorrent throughout the story but he’s unaware of his own immorality. He justifies his actions and flat-out ignores conversations that could cause him to turn over a new leaf.
Throughout all of this there’s one paragraph that sums up the entire escapade rather nicely. He’s in Sara’s dorm room with her while Veronica comes out of the shower and heads to her bedroom:
A hair dryer rumbled in your room. Going out to parts unknown. Worse, you knew precisely what I was doing: tragically staring at a Marxist tome with your bookish roommate. I’d given myself more opportunity for surveillance of you, but it meant you were now privy to my own humdrum existence.
The narrative comes to a head when David discovers that Veronica caught on early to his attention towards her. Whether or not she knew how often he was following her, taking pictures of her smoking between class with his phone, or going so far to steal an article of her clothing to masturbate into it is unclear, but she certainly knew that he was dating Sara only to get to her. This all comes to light when David discovers an essay that Veronica wrote for a feminist course revealing that she was studying him the entire time, even manipulating him to see if he would write essays for her for another course (which she apparently wrote herself beforehand; she only “cheated” to see if he would follow through).
David goes into a tirade at the end of the book—his letter—about how she manipulated him and also left out of her study the time she gave him a hand job, possibly to placate him. While it doesn’t justify his behavior, she is to some extant guilty of this. However, other things such as her elbow touching his in class he misinterprets as flirting, so no matter how guilty she might have been it appears he would have followed through with his final action towards her no matter what, once he learns of her essay. He also goes so far to blame her for reducing him to getting off on porn in which the actress humiliates the viewer about his small penis size.
There’s a lot of disturbing, obsessive behavior on David’s part that I’m leaving out. While I gave away the ending I want to make sure that it still has it’s impact. I’m normally desensitized to most fiction but I put this book down with a sense of relief. The story is so detailed with David’s behavior and justifications I found it jarring. Was I ever this bad when I was attempting to chase girls in my youth? Of course not—and then on top of that, while I was horrible with social intercourse in general growing up, (I hope) maturity and recent coming to grips with my own asexuality is something that I can take solace in. After reading this book I felt that I had to justify myself. I don’t see myself in David, but the book is so well-written from his point of view I felt like I was entering his own thoughts as he justified his behavior, and I felt ashamed when I didn’t have to. Believe or not, this is intended as praise. But the book is not for the faint of heart.