Ben Lerner is one of the smartest and most ambitious authors working today. His novel The Topeka School (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27), like his previous 10:04 and Leaving the Atocha Station, is a semiautobiographical, metafictional narrative, this time following Adam Gordon, a senior in a Topeka, Kansas, high school and, like the author, a nationally ranked debater, an aspiring poet, and a young man coming to grips with his role in a society imbued with toxic masculinity. Adam’s father is a psychiatrist specializing in treatments for “lost boys,” and his mother is a famous feminist author. The story is told through the alternating perspectives of this family, as well as that of Darren Eberheart, a violence-prone loner at the high school and one of the father’s “lost boys.” This is another Lerner novel about language; we watch as Adam’s speech evolves through spreading an opponent’s arguments in policy debate, engaging in freestyle rap battles with his classmates, and following the free association of memories that surface in therapy. This is also a look at childhood, and at the heartland of America and how the country has morphed along with the language into the current political atmosphere. Lerner’s latest work is brilliant, poetic, and introspective.
The Topeka School by Ben Lerner