In Loner, protagonist David Federman has a quirk: When he hears a word or a name, he likes to turn it backward in his mind, reversing the letters so they spell something different. “Star” becomes “rats.” “Pupils” becomes “slipup.” “Lived” becomes “devil.” Most of the words he switches around become incoherent, recognizable only to himself. David’s wordplay comes off as geeky and sweet; he seems ready to bloom in college.
But the shy kid we’re introduced to in chapter one soon grows as twisted and bizarre as his mirrored words. We learn that he views his new friends as disposable pawns and his fellow students only in terms of what they can do for him. The limited interactions he has with girls—with one girl in particular—grow heavy with innuendo and implications in his own mind.
Veronica is the object of David’s affection, and the book grows darker as his choices lead him from crushing on her, to stalking her, to becoming truly frightening in his actions toward her and others. As readers, we’re left off-balance, not quite sure whether Veronica is being played by David, or if she’s part of the game. The fact that the banalities of David’s life are so familiar makes his behavior all the more creepy, and author Teddy Wayne (The Love Song of Jonny Valentine) deftly weaves in literary allusions, to Macbeth and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in particular, that add another layer to the narrative.
Loner is a genre mashup—coming-of-age meets thriller—and the result is magnetic. Campus gender dynamics is a hot topic in the media, but Loner takes us back to the very beginning, tracing how small choices and hidden motivations lead to those attention-getting headlines. The reader has a front-row seat as David turns his privilege inside-out, twists the kindness of strangers into something perverse and loses the life he could have lived—and although that journey isn’t always pleasant, it’s incredibly compelling.