I recognize Ben Lerner’s Topeka. My father, who was born in the city and then left, moved our family back there when I was in second grade. My parents provided a loving home, but some of my earliest memories are of Topeka’s darkest manifestations of hate: We drove past Fred Phelps’ homophobic Westboro Baptist Church protests on our way to school, their “God Hates Fags” slogan as familiar in my neighborhood as Burger King’s “Have It Your Way.” In fifth grade, on a school trip, I witnessed a middle-aged white man pull a gun on a black high school student for standing too close to him. Kansas was (and is) an open-carry state. No one intervened.
I graduated from Topeka West High School one year after novelist Ben Lerner graduated from Topeka High, both of us college-bound. His parents were psychologists at the Menninger Clinic, a renowned psychological hospital that once occupied several acres on the north side of the city. Mine were private-practice doctors who worked downtown. By almost every marker, we were middle-class white kids with bright futures. But beyond our privileged front doors was a city stewing in poverty, racism, and radical homophobia.
Ben Lerner’s latest novel, The Topeka School, captures all of this, but it’s about more than the capital city of Kansas—it’s about Trump’s America. It reveals Topeka—a city rarely covered by mainstream media—to be a kind of ground zero for the cultural and political divides we see all across the country. The novel follows Adam Gordon, a high school senior and debate champion whose parents work for the “Foundation,” Lerner’s fictional take on the Menninger Clinic. Adam’s closest friends are like him—sons and daughters of Foundation doctors, wealthy compared with most Topekans, and bound for the Ivy League. They lead relatively uncomplicated lives until Adam befriends an outsider—a troubled working-class kid who fantasizes about guns.
Lerner’s parents, like my own, held advanced degrees and propagated a culture of intellectual liberalism. “I grew up in a home full of books and music,” Lerner wrote in a 2012 essay for Harper’s. Such arty progressivism was deeply at odds with the city’s growing radical conservatism. In the 1990s, when The Topeka School is set, the city served as an early hotbed of what would soon be deemed “alt-right” beliefs. But despite its dual strains of progressivism and conservatism, Topeka never experienced any great synthesis of class and culture. Instead, it remained a fractured place, segregated as much by wealth and education as by race.
In many ways, my own extended family’s mashup of political beliefs mirrored the city’s: We dabbled in rural conservatism (my grandfather was a farmer who listened to Rush Limbaugh), fiscally conservative libertarianism (my parents were doctors and business owners who believed in America’s bootstrap myth), and progressive liberalism (my aunt, practically a second mother to me, worked for the state government and voted for the Green Party). My own budding liberalism was buoyed by like-minded high school friends who joined me in anti-Monsanto protests in front of the state Capitol.
At home, dinner conversations would jump from carping about government overreach to lamenting over a neighbor’s loss of Medicaid coverage. The federal government was supposed to stay out of our lives. But it was also supposed to regulate women’s reproductive rights. My friends’ families were likewise gripped by contradiction: I’ll never forget my best friend’s father ranting about “entitlements” as he walked out the door on his way to pick up an unemployment check.
For years, the cognitive dissonances didn’t bother us much, because everyone around us held them. We also didn’t worry too often about the spread of political extremes, because with the exception of the Westboro Baptist Church—a group that even my most conservative family members thought consisted of loons—expressions of extreme beliefs were kept mostly in check by Midwestern politeness. (Of course, as white folks, we were never threatened by racial violence.) Extreme government policy, meanwhile, was checked by a politically moderate governor (Bill Graves) and senator (Bob Dole). But as the ’90s wore on, those checks weakened, and the gap between Topeka’s political differences grew uncomfortably wide.
On the one hand, conservatism was taking a political beating in the national arena. “When Bill Clinton beat Bush and then trounced my fellow-Kansan Bob Dole,” said Lerner in a recent interview in the New Yorker, “it seemed to many that the baby boomers, with their comparatively liberal social attitudes, had defeated conservatism once and for all.” But at the same time, a growing conservative movement found exceptional traction in the Kansas Republican Party and elected Sam Brownback to Congress. Brownback eventually became governor and implemented one of the most disastrous forms of austerity economics the state has ever experienced. (Today he serves as Trump’s U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, a position he uses to discriminate against the LGBTQ community and attack women’s reproductive rights.)
In The Topeka School, the city’s political and cultural contradictions surround Adam Gordon in every area of his life—school, family, friends. And they manifest in him physically through language. As a debate champion, Gordon learns to argue hot-button subjects from both sides of the political divide. He’s a good debater—the best, actually—but as time goes on, the need to navigate both sides of the political spectrum brings on migraines that leave the boy bedridden and numb. When Gordon finally leaves Topeka for college, his migraines leave him, suggesting that he feels whole again. The troubled teen he befriended, however, stays behind. Lerner doesn’t mention this in The Topeka School, but when the Menninger Clinic left Topeka in 2003 for Houston, it took with it one of the city’s primary fonts of liberalism as well as much-needed mental health resources. A part of me wonders if that teen left behind is meant to symbolize the city as a whole.
To be clear, The Topeka School isn’t a wholly damning picture of Topeka. On the contrary, it’s a nuanced and at times deeply moving portrait of a city breaking apart. In 2019, the political differences that fractured Topeka have proliferated across the United States. Countless think pieces have been written about where and why the divides began, but Lerner’s latest offers a unique perspective by focusing on a city few people paid any attention to. Sometimes fiction can expose the truth in ways that news reports can’t.
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