Loner: A Novel by Teddy Wayne

I received an advance-read copy of this book from the publisher, Simon & Schuster, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Hardcover, 224 pages
Expected publication: September 13th 2016 by Simon & Schuster

Loner: A Novel turned out to be an unexpected gift, a surprise wolf wrapped in sheep’s clothing. This, of course, is always the best kind of surprise because—let’s face it—who wants to read through shocking revelations that never shock and humdrum plot lines that fail to thrill?

David Alan Federman is entering his freshman year at Harvard in much the same way that he’s lived his pre-college life: introverted, awkward enough to make a habit of spelling large words and sentences backward in his head for kicks (his college entry essay was entitled “SDRAWKCAB”) and perpetually uncomfortable in social settings of pretty much any kind. The middle child of attorney parents who remind him to take his Lactaid before going down to the freshman ice cream party, he meets—rather, instantly becomes enamored with from quite afar—a fellow freshman who’s too-cool-for-school attitude and socially elite entourage easily draw his attention. But the social caste system of high school still exists, even on the prestigious campus of Harvard, and we all know how that goes. Hence this novel takes off at a trot and never really slows, as one occurrence builds upon the tension of the next. What you end up with is a delicious university-setting tautness and social hierarchies traversed with alarming repercussions.

One of the many things that this novel had going for it was setting. No, not just the fact that everyone knows Harvard, one of America’s darling Ivys, but that everything from the physical landscape of the campus to the “baroque” vocab used by its overachieving matriculates immersed the reader in the scene from the very start, both physically and socially. Immersion is a true key to a great read, as we all know, and Loner offered that in spades in a way that was so unique that it struck me as off-putting at first, offering SAT-vocab-laden narration and interior thoughts that practically oozed with a telling social awkwardness—the kind that could only be the result of years of practiced introversion and prolonged interior conversations with oneself. While at first it struck me as a tick, I soon realized that it was, contrarily, a brilliantly executed mood of the novel that all came together delightfully or maybe disturbingly in the end.

But it is with the unique POV shift that the reader first begins to realize something’s wrong.

The blurb for this one left out one key detail that would probably grab it even more readers: that this is a psychological ride as much as anything else. It pushed the boundaries of what we’re comfortable with. Because, you’ll first notice David’s obsession with Veronica the first time the switch to 2nd person happens. You may run across a passage like, “And then I saw you walk in…” in the middle of a 1st person narration, and you’ll know. Oh, you’ll know. It succeeds in creating a hazily unsettling atmosphere, like at any minute you might find that you’ve entered the mind of a young sociopath…

That kept me on my toes.

I’ll resist stepping up to the podium to deliver a monologue on the pros and cons of 2nd person writing and how it’s increased usage in contemporary writing effects the reader—gosh, sounds like a class I wouldn’t mind taking!—and instead side-step that well-beaten path to say that I genuinely enjoyed this work far more than I would have had that literary tactic not been employed, because it created a charged atmosphere of voyeurism.

What I most applaud the author for, however—and trust me, there’s plenty to applaud here—was the author’s clear use of restraint. Restraint, restraint, RESTRAINT! It’s easy to fill a novel with superfluous passages that go nowhere and superfluous characters who do nothing but it’s a skillful author indeed who can cut away the nonsense and tell a truly streamlined tale that still manages to leave no detail unexplored, without inflating the word count with unnecessary prose. That is what Teddy Wayne did here in Loner, hence the short page count and the knock-out punch ending that landed the hardest blow, unsoftened by uncut fat. This novel was a sure ride toward the dénouement with steadily escalating subtle cues that piqued my reader Spidey senses like a dog’s ears perking in the wind. Put your ear to the ground. Can you hear that? For something wicked this way comes…

**Minor spoiler alert** Following David’s descent into obsession** was thrilling, like the downward slope of a roller coaster that you expected—you saw it as you approached the top of the summit, but your heart still dropped to your stomach on the way down. But, then again, we all know that I’m partial to character pieces that peel back the layers, and this was definitely that.
Sharp and utterly disquieting, this novel is so much more than first meets the eye. Every word and action were deliberate. I loved seeing it all come together, seeing the author’s clever hand at work and realizing that those scattered nuances were all part of a larger, oh-so-deliberate whole. I’d gladly jump in bed with the Loner again, and I recommend you do too. 4.5 stars ****

Throwback Thursday: The Hip Hop Wars by Tricia Rose

Paperback, 320 pages
Published December 2nd 2008 by Basic Civitas Books (first published January 1st 2008)

          “Hip Hop is not dead, but it is gravely ill. The beauty and life force of hip hop have been squeezed out, wrung nearly dry by the compounding factors of commercialism, distorted racial and sexual fantasy, oppression, and alienation. It has been a sad thing to witness.”

Rose’s survey on the current state of the hip hop industry is a dazzling display of contemporary cultural probing and criticism. The Hip Hop Wars dissects the music industry, particularly the sphere of hip hop music, and puts it through a methodical and impassioned analysis from the inside out. Two-thirds of this work uses the framework of Critics vs. Defenders, exploring each side of the arguments presented, which allowed for an extremely dynamic and diverse examination of the subject. Simultaneously, Part Two: Progressive Futures offered solutions to the “problem” that hip hop and the African American diaspora, as the community and identity surrounding it, are confronted with. The format itself was refreshing, as it endeavored to offer as comprehensive a view of the industry’s landscape as possible, while also offering solutions to the problems, rather than simply proselytizing to the masses from a perch on a soap box. No, this was a down-to-earth work in that way, in that the author was clearly writing from the concerned standpoint of one entrenched in the soul of the very wounded creature that they seek to heal, rather than from an outsider’s view, hovering above the culture and taking stilled snapshots from their safe locale outside of the battle field, away from the dangers of getting their own hands dirty.

Rose reaches into the heart of the new technologies and music markets that now shape and affect this music, as well as the gaping mouth of the corporate Goliath poised to gobble up this once-expressive art form like the Cookie Monster. She examines the who, what, when, where, and, most importantly, the why of the disintegration of this form of artful story-telling and the complicit-ness of the artists and its consumers in the demise of their own culture, their own music, their own outlet and venue of true personal expression. Neither rappers, nor music moguls nor radio stations are spared in this introspective and insightful survey. Unemployment, the drug trade, and even affordable housing and white consumption, feminism, sexism (all the isms, really), even Shaft and Foxy Brown’s roles in the foundation, intent and culture of hip hop music are examined and explained to create an entire picture of the hip hop music industry and its players.

While I loved The Hip Hop Wars and the passion and thorough research with which Rose displayed her arguments, there were times where she managed to nearly push me off the bandwagon—well, maybe not off, but to the edge. Some of her arguments seemed a bit overwrought and exaggerative, and there are several places in my notes—believe me, this one was highlighted and marked up like schoolwork—where I wrote that I thought she was overdoing it a bit.

However, her overall argument really grabbed me, educated me and entertained me. I felt that I came away with something that I didn’t have before, when I finished the last page and closed the book, and that is what reading is all about; that is what a good argument should do. I would absolutely read this one again and suggest it to anyone considering giving it a whirl. This one proved why we can’t just sit by and watch an art form crumble, watch a culture be commercialized, packaged and sold with such deformities that it no longer represents the subject that it depicts at all—all for the sake of capitalism and mass exploitation:

          “The term ‘street’ became a euphemism for a monsoon of profanity, gratuitous violence, female and male hyper-promiscuity, the most vulgar materialism, and the total suppression of social consciousness.”

That is not what black culture is about, though it is the way that it is portrayed on the radio and in pop culture. The Hip Hop Wars brought to the forefront where it all went wrong, and how we can take it back again. True hip hop is not gentrified or yuppified; it isn’t Barbie-doll packaged and ready for shipping, complete with a thong and gold teeth. It isn’t the minstrel show that it’s become today, and Tricia Rose helps us to both remember and explore that. 4 ½ stars ****