The Plot: On April 21, 2008, Steven “Crash” Crashinsky saved the lives of every one in his high school — student, teachers, staff — when he somehow stopped his classmate David “Burn” Burnett from blowing up the school following a dramatic hostage situation.
Crash is now a hero, with all that comes with being a hero, including a book contract to tell his story.
This is his story. Is Crash a hero? Is Burn a villain?
The Good: I have to say: I loved this book.
I have to say: I hated this book.
So, here’s what we’re going to do. Today, I’m going to tell you about all the reasons I loved Crash and Burn. Tomorrow, I’ll talk about what bothers me — and you can be the judge, if it’s me or the book.
Crash is a wonderful creation: so wonderful that I think he is real. I believe in him, in everything he does. Who is Crash? He’s an eighteen year old boy who just graduated high school, a boy who the world is in love with because he’s a hero. Crash tells his story be starting years ago, when he and Burn first met as elementary school students. At over 500 pages, the reader learns almost everything there is to know about Crash. He’s a slacker who likes to hang out with his friends, smoke a lot of pot, get drunk, and have sex with girls. Becoming a hero didn’t change that, except to give him more money to finance the partying and more girls who are willing. Oh, and instead of worrying about not getting into college because of his grades, every school wanted him. Nice, right?
And here’s something you need to know about Crash. He has ADHD. Crash and Burn is told by someone who doesn’t want to stick around for one memory too long, so it jumps in time, careening from the now of the summer after graduation to various thens in Crash’s life. This intricate structure, that both reflects Crash’s ADHD as well as his reluctance to tell us the truth, is brilliant. I almost want to reread and chart it out, to get the full impact of how wonderfully it recreates Crash’s mind, his thought process, his denials.
His denials: any book told in the first person means, unreliable narrator. Crash tells us, “I’m not gonna lie to you.” It’s the very first sentence of the book: and I believe that Crash does indeed believe the story he tells us. I also believe that Crash is very self-absorbed and self-centered with incredible tunnel vision and he doesn’t see the full story so is incapable of telling us the true story.
What is the story? The true story? Yes, Burn took a school full of people hostage. Yes, Crash saved them all. Crash then tells of how the two boys first met as children, and how their paths kept overlapping with each other. Burn is sent to a “special” school and then returns; he always seems a bit “off,” at least to Crash. Crash has a crush on Burn’s older sister; their mothers are friends. Crash seems to be trying to convince us all that he and Burn were never, could never be friends. He points to when Burn tries to burn down the school, showing himself as totally innocent.
And yet. And yet. As I read, I wondered. Burn saw himself as Crash’s friend; were they friends? Does Crash deny it a bit too much? This is part of why I loved Crash and Burn, trying to find out what was really going on, with Crash, and with the people around him. In bringing us through the years that lead up to the hostage crisis, Crash also tells a lot about his personal life, from his emotionally abusive father to his dismissive older sister, to the girls he likes and the girls he wants to sleep with, and all along the way I wondered just how true it was.
Take his father: from an early age, Crash’s father is emotionally abusive, believing that his son is deliberately being willful and disobedient. Crash can never be good enough, and his father never, ever cuts him slack. Talk about horrible fathers! But. But. But, Crash also describes his mother as being very protective of her children and a real champion on their behalf, so why did she tolerate how her husband treated their son? When his parents finally split up, it’s not to protect her children but it’s for herself: her husband has a girlfriend. And the girlfriend! She is a dream of perfection, someone Crash adores, and all I can think of is, there’s no way these two are together, unless Crash is leaving something out.
The sisters, the friends, family — all are people I believe in, even if I suspected at times that Crash left things out.
What else? I loved that Burn’s problems included his mental health. Crash and Burn doesn’t give any simple diagnosis, and it also avoids any simplistic explanations. Part of what it avoids? A narrative that is “Burn was bullied” or “Burn was an outsider.” Burn has problems, shown by his attempt to burn his elementary school down. It’s not helped by being dealt a pretty rotten hand, including the death of his father in 9-11. His family tries: there’s that special school he was sent to. In some ways, Burn is a mirror of Crash and Burn himself notes that their is a unique connection between the two. What, one wonders, kept Crash from becoming Burn? (At one point very early on I even wondered if Crash and Burn were the same person, but it’s not that type of book.)
One more observation: book design! It’s a terrific book jacket, and I love that it speaks to multiple things: Burn’s early attempt to burn down an elementary school, Crash’s pot smoking, and even 9-11. Take off the jacket, and underneath — there is an embossed, closed matchbook. I ADORE that type of design.
So yes, a lot to love: a slacker pothead hero who just likes to hang out with his friends and have a good time, a most unlikely hero. A complex backstory that paints an extremely detailed portrait of two teenage boys. An unreliable narrator that gives readers a lot to discuss (am I the only one who got a Madoff vibe from Crash’s father and stepmother?). A world where even the minor characters are fully drawn.
But Liz, you said you also hated Crash and Burn! How can that be possible?
Find out tomorrow!