Adam Gordon is a senior and renowned debater at Topeka High School, class of ’97, where he is one of the cool kids, ready to fight—or, better, freestyle about fighting—if it keeps his peers from thinking of him as weak. His parents both work at a psychiatric clinic that has attracted staff and patients from around the world. When Adam brings the loner Darren Eberheart―who is, unbeknownst to Adam, his father’s patient―into the social scene, there are disastrous consequences.
...exhilarating ... The Topeka School rocks an American amplitude, ranging freely from parenthood to childhood, from toxic masculinity to the niceties of cunnilingus ... the earlier novels’ questions about art and authenticity not only persist; they stretch to fill the horizon. The cumulative effect of The Topeka School's departures, then, is of arrival: at urgency, at scale. Adam’s faithlessness can no longer be written off as cosmopolitan neurosis. It is instead a symptom of a national crisis of belief ... Lerner’s own arsenal has always included a composer’s feel for orchestration, a ventriloquist’s vocal range and a fine ethnographic attunement. Never before, though, has the latter been so joyously indulged, or the bubblicious texture of late Clintonism been so lovingly evoked ... Lerner has unearthed here an ingenious metaphor for the effects of winner-take-all late capitalism — not just debate and hip-hop, but on race and sexuality and language itself. At times, the novel pushes these connections harder than they will bear, but a timely universality emerges from what otherwise might have been a nostalgic coming-of-age story ... The Topeka School's alternating narrators can bring us into wonderful intimacy with internal contradictions, where they exist, but the novel as a whole wants to transcend these limits of perspective ... I could say more — about trauma, sex, paradox, magic — but only at the cost of further reducing this irreducible novel, which seeks instead to spread its readers beyond their borders with its fertile intelligence and its even more abundant heart.
... awe-inspiring ... Lerner has hit on something deep, and true, in the portrait of 'debate' in this book, as what it has long seemed to be—the knightly combat or martial arts of children of the professional-managerial class, where they can practice the linguistic violence they’ll use as adults against real targets in politics, the law, and administration ... The beautiful recollections of childhood in The Topeka School allow for a Portrait of the Artist–type origin story in which Adam’s eventual triumph as a poet, and as the writer of this novel, occurs by the neutralization of the voices of debate and white rap with his mother’s feminism ... The Darren plot seems a way to lend a convention of suspense, familiar from other contemporary novels, to a book that is better than most contemporary novels. Perhaps its virtue is as a reminder of the persistence of exclusion in a progressive civilization—our own—which redeems some new subjects only to despise and scapegoat others.
...thoroughly, intimidatingly brilliant and absolutely contemporary ... funny, and at times, painfully acute. A bildungsroman in lyric chorus, it looks back on the past with affection but without nostalgia, and lands in the frighteningly unsure coda of the present day ... manages, in its particularity, to tell a story that is emblematic of American life ... Lerner seems to reinvent the novel as a happy side effect of some other project ... He is a supremely gifted prose stylist, at once theoretical and conversational; he never bores or blathers, and is always limpid. Rather than inviting the reader to look at him or his life, he invites the reader to look through him ... It is a testament to Lerner’s immense skill as a storyteller that his novels that double as essays and flicker like poems are also as frictionless as any classic work of nineteenth-century realism, easily reeling the reader in to their worlds, which display, in modernist style, all the seams ... Lerner is a genius of self-consciousness in all its senses—the thinking mind, the ambivalent attachment, the awkward social performance