The Topeka School

Farrar. Oct. 2019. 304p. ISBN 9780374277789. pap. $27. F
Straddling a fine line between fiction and memoir, this book reintroduces Adam Gordon, the narrator of Lerner’s acclaimed debut novel, Leaving the Atocha Station. Adam’s youth in Topeka, KS, is unveiled in alternating chapters told by his parents, Jonathan and Jane, practicing psychologists who reveal more about their own emotional lives than their son’s. We do learn that Adam is a top-notch debater who excels at the art of employing words to obfuscate more often than to explicate, perhaps a perfect metaphor for a novel set on the campus of The Foundation, an institution dedicated to the efficacy of talk therapy. And these characters do talk, seeking explanations for traumas large and small. Parental abuse, infidelity, rampant sexism, and the complexity of aging and memory are all subject to Lerner’s scrutiny. Threaded throughout the Gordon family’s story is the ominous tale of Adam’s schoolmate and Jonathan’s patient, Darren Eberheart, whose precarious hold on reality might by shattered by the bullying of his peers.
VERDICT Readers seeking the wry humor for which MacArthur fellow Lerner is noted will find it in short supply here. This exploration of the angst-filled road to manhood is recommended for fans of Jonathan Franzen. [See Prepub Alert, 3/25/19.]

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