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Teddy Wayne's 'Loner' Paints A Chilling Study Of The Effects Of 'Toxic Masculinity'


David Federman is a Jersey guy who becomes a Harvard man - bright young man from Garret Hobart High School, named for New Jersey's only vice president who becomes a Harvard freshman. There he meets Veronica Morgan Wells, who's from just across the river in Manhattan but a world away from David's. He becomes infatuated with her and uses others to try to get close to her. And without giving away the story, it turns out that Veronica has her own reasons for letting David think he is.

"Loner" is the name of Teddy Wayne's novel. And Teddy Wayne is a regular contributor to The New Yorker and other publications, and author of the acclaimed novel "The Love Song Of Johnny Valentine." He joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

TEDDY WAYNE: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: This is a deeply upsetting story. What put it in your mind?

WAYNE: Every few weeks it seems there's another atrocity in the news perpetrated by invariably a man, often a young man, whether on a mass or individual scale. And very often when the news researches this individual's life, they call him a loner. And this is a word that once had positive, almost romantic connotations in America. You can think of cowboys, The Lone Ranger, other rugged individualists.

It's turned into something that's associated with young men who live at home with their parents, who blow up a high school cafeteria or commit sexual assault or do something else horrible. I was compelled to write from the perspective of one of these young men and try to understand what's going on in their head and what cultural forces influence them to act this way.

SIMON: There is nothing remotely charming in David's infatuation with Veronica. He begins to stalk her. He steals items from her. How do you inhabit and write about that mentality?

WAYNE: You don't want to make the character so off-putting in the beginning as to lose the reader. So I think to look at what makes - what's relatable? What's universal about David? He feels like an outsider. Most of us at some point have felt that way, especially when you're in a new place like college. He's vulnerable. He's sensitive. He's insecure. These are universal human traits that are easier to access not just for the reader, but for me as the writer. And then you can start sort of dipping into the darker, more twisted, perverse aspects of his personality.

But I was careful not to go too monstrous at the start both for, you know, not wanting to put the reader off his scent, but that's not a very compelling character to me. Someone who's villainous from the beginning is more of a cartoon. David, I hope, is a human who has these monstrous qualities as well that are under the surface.

SIMON: As a reader, you find yourself asking, does Veronica want only a little to do - and after a while not even that - with David because she's Park Avenue and he's New Jersey, or because David is a creep?

WAYNE: You know, we don't get Veronica's side of the story. There is a counter-narrative here, something Veronica's doing that is revealed later on in the book. But clearly she recognizes that David is overreaching at a certain point. Then again, she is only associating with those of her kind. She's from the 1 percent. She's from the Upper East Side. She - all her friends are from similarly gilded circles.

SIMON: Yeah. I mean, David's family might be 1 percent, too. His mother's a lawyer, for example.

WAYNE: Yeah, his - both his parents are lawyers. And normally in this kind of book, it would be a working-class kid who goes to Harvard and is exposed to this glamorous world. But here it's a very upper-middle-class boy from the suburbs, very cushy background, who still greedily wants more than what he already has.

SIMON: You must have finished this novel last year.

WAYNE: I did, yes.

SIMON: But it's hard to read it and not think of the recent case of Brock Turner, the former Stanford student who got out of jail just a few days ago after serving just three months for felony sexual assault. What would you tell readers who try and make comparisons?

WAYNE: Well, the Brock Turners of the world are a different type of character from David. They're the alpha males. David's a decided beta male. But both are products of what's called frequently toxic masculinity, which is the ways that the patriarchy can be damaging to men, not just women. And that it trains them to be dominant, to be aggressors, to be violent, to not betray any vulnerability or sensitivity.

So both are flip sides of the same coin of toxic masculinity. David is additionally angry that he does not have the rewards that Brock Turner has. He's pushed to the side, whereas Brock Turner is a hailed athlete.

SIMON: Mr. Wayne, does David stay with you? I mean, I've been having nightmares, and the character didn't begin in my mind.

WAYNE: Yeah. At this point, I'm - I don't mean to make - to sound glib. I'm more concerned - I got married this summer and I'm more concerned at this point with people in my wife's family reading it who I've tried to dissuade from reading it. As for me, he's there certainly but, you know, it is fiction. It's made up. This is nothing compared to - people have to deal with the real-life Brock Turners out there.

SIMON: Teddy Wayne, his novel, "Loner." Thanks so much for being with us.

WAYNE: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.