Literature is densely populated with obsessive protagonists ruled by their outsized or unseemly desires; the DSM-5 would classify quite a few as psychopaths. These five characters (and one actor) influenced my portrait of David Federman, the seemingly mild-mannered Harvard freshman outcast who becomes unhealthily infatuated with an out-of-his-league female classmate, Veronica, in my new novel, Loner (out now from Simon & Schuster).
1. Captain Ahab, Moby-Dick: The classic monomaniac, Ahab’s pursuit of the white whale can represent nearly anything, but to me it most embodies the infinite American appetite for ambition. David’s pursuit of Veronica can be read similarly, as the insatiable desire for greater status and achievement.
2. Jay Gatsby, The Great Gatsby: If someone today ended up buying a mansion near the home of his first love and threw parties in hopes of running into her, he’d be placed somewhere on the continuum between creep and stalker. David’s attempts to cross paths with Veronica increasingly slide him to the right side of this spectrum.
3. Tom Ripley, The Talented Mr. Ripley: Like Tom, David is intent on moving up to the highest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder, believing that those in the one percent have access to an exclusive happiness. And, like Tom, he feels no remorse in using and hurting those who would get in his way.
4. Humbert Humbert, Lolita: Humbert is, of course, a pedophile, but his love for Lolita is surprisingly genuine. His heartfelt passion for her, and his magnificent use of the English language, turns the reader’s sympathies, making us complicit in his violations. I tried to do something similar with David, to get the reader on his side as much as possible through his entertaining narration while he still does horrible things.
5. Nora Eldridge, The Woman Upstairs: Nora, a 37-year-old woman justifiably angry over the way life has overlooked her, insinuates herself into the life of a glamorous family. David is an upper-middle-class white male at Harvard who has suffered no real deprivations—and yet, like many entitled young men, he still feels he’s owed more.
6, 7, 8. Robert De Niro, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy: In a seven-year span, De Niro played three iconic men with different strains of obsessive behavior: the profoundly alienated Travis Bickle’s desire to rescue two different women; Jake La Motta and his uncontrollable jealousy; and Rupert Pupkin’s craving for fame. I thought of David as an Ivy League version of Travis, in particular.