The cover of “The Topeka School” by Ben Lerner shows a tornado barreling down a highway lightly populated with semis and cars. It’s a scene one could expect to see in Kansas. The tornado is just a symbol, though, for the somewhat dysfunctional family and associated characters depicted in the novel.
Darren, a teen with special needs, mostly related to his inability to learn to read, receives attention in the opening chapter. His story is told in alternating chapters in italic type. He is a bullied teen who commits an act of violence toward his former classmates.
The main characters are Adam, a teen in 1996 when the story opens, and his parents, New Yorkers Jonathan and Jane, doctors in psychiatry and psychology, who stayed in Topeka after completing their doctorates at The Foundation. The Foundation operates as an inpatient/outpatient treatment center for psychiatric and mental health cases. (The resemblance to the Menninger Clinics, one of which is based in Topeka, is clear.)
Each chapter is told from the point of view of the family. Jonathan and Jane explain their story upon their son’s request. By 2019, he’s become a renowned poet. He wants their memories for a book he is planning. He learns about his dad’s first marriage, his dad’s infidelity, and his mother’s losses even though she has written bestselling books about women and abuse that have been featured on Oprah. Adam is a champion debater in high school. He wins a national debate in which his parents watch him compete for the first time. His parents, loving though they may be, seem distracted by their own careers and friendships.
Adam wins competitions with techniques that involve presenting arguments quickly and with so much documentation that his opponents can’t keep up with him.
The stories of the characters in “The Topeka School” are told with a pace that seems rhetorically frenetic. Long sentences, psychological implications, and rapid thought processes reflect the intellectual and introspective viewpoints of the characters.
Quiet anger permeates the book, although nothing violent occurs outside of Darren’s incident. A young Adam suppresses his anger toward friends, and an adult Adam suppresses his anger toward strangers. Anger is prevalent from men in their responses to Jane's work, and Jane experiences anger towards her husband’s infidelity. In 2019, anger is expressed toward the politics and policies of the government.
“The Topeka School” is Lerner’s third book. Lerner is an award-winning poet. He was a debater in high school. HIs books are semi-autobiographical.