Adam Gordon is a senior at Topeka High School, class of ’97. His parents both work at a psychiatric clinic that has attracted staff and patients from around the world. Adam is a renowned debater, expected to win a national championship before he heads to college. 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. Adam is also one of the seniors who bring the loner Darren Eberheart―who is, unbeknownst to Adam, his father’s patient―into the social scene, to disastrous effect.
... 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
The Topeka School is the best novel of the Donald Trump era thus far—in no small part because it isn’t much interested in Trump. Rather, it investigates the weird and twisty relationships between Trump’s political context and the state of American language ... some lines in The Topeka School are as fine as any he’s written ... The Topeka School continues this project of redefining identity as a collection of many versions of oneself scattered throughout time. What’s changed is Lerner’s scope ... The Topeka School succeeds, in part, by rejecting uncomplicated constructions of blame or causality ... There’s room to hope that this isn’t, in fact, the end of history, and that things spread out might be called back in again. Maybe the most remarkable thing about The Topeka School is the way it models this possibility by gathering together the apparently distant and unrelated ... sincere and generous.