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A First Year College Student Finds Himself Outclassed In 'Loner'


This is FRESH AIR. The beginning of the school year also brings a new academic novel set in one of this country's most prestigious campuses. The novel is called "Loner," and it's written by New York Times columnist Teddy Wayne. Our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Consider the campus novel. Ever since F. Scott Fitzgerald published "This Side Of Paradise" in 1920 and clued the American public into the fact that a lot more than just reading was going on in the dorms at Princeton, the campus novel as a literary genre has thrived and diversified. There are now more varieties of the campus novel than there are froyo flavors at your average college cafeteria. Readers apparently love stories about smart people - students and faculty members - behaving badly. There are academic satires like "Straight Man" by Richard Russo and T. Geronimo Johnson's "Welcome To Braggsville," suspense tales like Donna Tartt's "The Secret History" and straight academic literary fiction like Jeffrey Eugenides' "The Marriage Plot" and Tom Wolfe's "I Am Charlotte Simmons."

This fall's newest recruit into the college fiction scrum is called "Loner" by Teddy Wayne, and it's a bit of a mashup of almost all of these different literary categories. Like a first-year student undecided about her or his major, "Loner" begins as a sharply observed novel of manners, academic posturing and social distinctions on campus today. But it soon mutates into a classic tale of obsession. The overall effect is a bit jumbled. As a reader, I felt as though I'd been shoved off a college orientation tour straight into an advanced abnormal psych seminar. But if you don't mind the switch in style, "Loner" ultimately becomes a powerful and even a somewhat touching suspense story about a first-year student who finds himself outclassed in ways neither he nor the reader could possibly anticipate.

"Loner" is retrospectively narrated by newly-arrived Harvard student David Federman. David is a late bloomer, a socially inept, mumbling middle-class New Jersey boy whose mother's parting words of advice to him on move-in day are try to enunciate. David spent a lot of nights and weekends in high school by himself, reading, which is partly how he got into Harvard. Now that he's inside the holy of holies of the American academic world, life promises to open up. Except it doesn't. At his first dinner, David quickly susses out that the Harvard cafeteria is not all that different from the one in high school, with students quickly segregating into their appointed groups like an ice cube tray.

Here's David's commentary on the group he's clumped with. (Reading) Our dinner conversation revolved around the cuisine, the refuge of those with little in common. We lobbed insults at the sogginess of the tater tots. I felt a spasm of apprehension seeing the next few months unfolding much like this, the ripe cranberry blush of autumn fading to bleached December. By cruel accident, these might well become my college friends. My cowardly instinct was to cling to them, but not for too long. Powerful clans are never this diverse and scattered. Only the outcast are.

That rumination starts off wry and ends a little weird, doesn't it? You hear anger and even self-aggrandizement seeping through. Indeed, David initially sounds a little like Holden Caulfield or even Nick Carraway, those wry loner narrators who most readers like and identify with. But as the story develops his unreliability intensifies, as does his emotional instability. David becomes fixated on another first-year student, a Manhattan golden girl named Veronica Morgan Wells. David even goes so far as to enroll in the same English course that she's taking, a course on the American tragic hero, just to be in the same lecture room as Veronica and stare mesmerized at the dandruff that falls on her sweater as she scratches her scalp.

Is David smitten like Gatsby is with Daisy, or is he simply a stalker type? The answers ingeniously lie in the final papers David and Veronica turn in for the semester, both involving scholarly theories on the predatory male gaze. At bottom, "Loner," like all good suspense stories, academic or otherwise, test readers on our close reading skills. Did we catch the clues that Wayne expertly scatters throughout this text, or did we maybe drift off at key passages? Ultimately, the characters in "Loner" who land in safe spaces are those students who've learned to pay attention and respect the slipperiness of words.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Loner" by Teddy Wayne. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about the racial cleansing of Forsyth County, Ga. in 1912 following attacks on two white women. Night Riders terrorized and drove out all 1,100 black residents. My guest will be poet Patrick Phillips, who grew up in the county and wrote a new book about it called "Blood At The Root." I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.