Verbal combat in 1990’s Kansas

Ben Lerner’s new novel opens with teenager Darren Eberhardt struggling to explain to authorities why he hurled a cue ball into a dark, crowded party room filled with graduating seniors, unable to verbalize the powerful desire in his heart to lash out, the anger he feels that hovers. This brief scene (a mere page in length) tempts us with the question of what happened that night, introducing a simmering plot line Ben Lerner cleverly threads through the main story that focuses on another teenager, Adam Gordon, a senior at Topeka High, class of 1997. Adam, for followers of Lerner’s work, appeared in the author’s first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station. These are Adam’s younger years.

The Topeka School by Ben Lerner

We first encounter Adam drifting in a boat on a man-made lake in the middle of the night with his girlfriend, Amber. He’s gazing across the water, inebriated and talking incessantly, and then he notices Amber is gone. She’s not in the water and not on the dock. When Adam finally finds Amber at her house, they both shrug off her bizarre Houdini act. “Win me a medal tomorrow,” Amber says, as they call it a night. The next day, Adam participates in a competitive speech tournament. He’s brilliant at manipulating arguments with an avalanche of words.

This is an exceptionally insightful story that explores topics of language and masculinity in conservative Kansas during the 1990s. Author Ben Lerner knowledgeably dissects the power of words as verbal combat, immersing us in Adam’s senior year training for the national debate competitions. At the same time, he delves into the rage of privileged male adolescents who feel lost and unheard, who feel pressure to be real men, who grow up to be the frustrated men of today.

Adam hangs with his high school friends at booze-fueled parties, where he crosses paths with Darren. Rather than continue to tease and bully the uncool, backward boy, Adam and his friends make an effort to include him. Their shallow empathy, however, barely disguises their mockery and contempt. One night, they abandon Darren drunk and asleep in a field after a bonfire party. The next morning, Darren realizes his friends left without him but refuses to believe there was insincerity in his inclusion in their party.

Maybe in their own drunkenness they forgot who had come with whom. He stood, joints cracking, and pissed onto the darker grass his body had protected from the frost. Best night of his life.

The complex narrative in The Topeka School shifts seamlessly in viewpoint between, Darren, Adam and Adam’s liberal parents, Jane and Jonathan Gordon, psychologists who practice at a world-famous psychiatric institute and hospital in Topeka. The parents’ page-turning monologues spin the dynamics of their careers and Midwestern family life, including Jane’s life as a famous relationship guru; Jonathan’s quiet skill of listening to struggling adolescents, including Darren; Jane’s recovered memory of abuse; and Jonathan’s affair with Jane’s best friend.

Issues of feminism and masculinity play out as Jane gets obscene phone calls from anonymous men who believe she’s ruined their marriages, while women in the grocery approach her expressing gratitude. Jonathan meanwhile comfortably lacks ambition. He personally invests in the new vision of masculinity gaining popularity in Robert Bly’s best-selling book, Iron John, which Adam refers to as “machismo bullshit,” putting his verbal skills to work denigrating his father’s men’s group and illustrating the confusion he and other boys feel about being a real man.

You guys probably should go perform improvised masculine rituals in the woods. Play some drums, stew some squirrels. The calmer his dad remained, the more furious Adam grew: fights over nothing would lead him to slam doors; twice he punched holes in his bedroom wall.

In the end, we learn what drives Darren to violence with the cue ball, and we follow Adam through graduation and the national debate competitions, tense with wondering if he’ll win. Ben Lerner, however, does something interesting with the ending by also shifting forward in time to when Adam is married in New York, attending a protest with his wife and children. Here we visit again the ideas of language, of being heard, and of the frustrated, angry male. Jonathan earlier in the book says, “We thought that if we had a language for our feelings we might transcend them,” but Adam, the combative linguist and now the observant adult and parent, comes to understand words only go so far.

The Topeka School by Ben Lerner is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Lerner’s previous novels include Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04. A version of this review was broadcast in central Ohio on NPR member station WOSU 89.7 FM.