Michael Hassan’s young adult novel Crash and Burn presents a unique perspective on the subject of school shootings. Rather than delve into the psyche of the shooter, Hassan focuses on the hero, Steven “Crash” Crashinsky, who has somehow managed to talk his classmate David “Burn” Burnett out of killing anyone when he took the school hostage. Crash becomes a local hero and media darling with a book deal — no one knows exactly how Crash convinced Burn to surrender, nor does anyone know exactly what Burn whispered to Crash before he did.
The mystery of Burn’s last words before surrendering forms the core of the rest of the story and propels it forward. Given that, Hassan makes the interesting decision not to make the hostage taking the focus of his story — it provides the catalyst for the story, certainly, and we are constantly aware of it having happened, but the story is really about Crash, a socially awkward young boy with ADHD who relates most with video game character Crash Bandicoot and who has a major crush on Burn’s wise cracking yet deeply troubled older sister Roxanne.
One of the major questions in any school shooting story is: what finally pushes the shooter over the edge? In Hassan’s story, it’s Crash’s family problems we are privy to — his domineering, almost cruel, father forms a shadow that haunts Crash for most of his life. Seeing Crash’s own troubles creates an interesting parallel between the two boys, and leaves the question hanging: what makes one boy a villain and the other a hero?
Even as a hero, Crash is hardly a saint. He uses his fame to pick up much younger girls, he treats the girl he loves pretty horribly, he is more interested in smoking pot than in actually doing anything. His book deal forces him to deal with memories of Burn, but he still often needs his agent or his friends to prod him into it. Dealing with a boy like Burn, and seeing him snap to the point of taking the entire school hostage — that’s a lot to deal with, and the image of Crash is not so much that of a hero as that of a young boy who has been forced to deal with an experience much bigger than himself, and the aftermath of that.
Crash and Burn is a gripping exploration of growing up with an unescapable source of fear. One question people usually ask after a school shooting incident is whether or not there were any warning signs, whether or not it could have been prevented. In Hassan’s book, Burn was clearly disturbed from the beginning. He almost blew up the school in elementary school, he was institutionalized time and again, and put on medication — and still, for some reason or another, he always ended up back in the public school system, free to take the school hostage. How could that happen? Hassan offers no easy answers, nor does he assign blame — teachers, administrators, even Burn’s mother all seem to be doing what they can, and yet due to one circumstance or another, it wasn’t enough.
Crash’s relationship with Burn is similar to Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort — their destinies are inextricably intertwined. Despite Crash’s attempts to keep Burn out of his life, they always manage to end up connected anyway, often because of the simple fact that their mothers are friends. The sensation then is of inevitability — like Crash, we know Burn is disturbed, and like Crash, we know at some point Burn will snap. Due to the sequence of events in the book, we even know how he will snap. And yet like Crash, we can’t seem to look away. Burn is a menacing presence throughout the book, even when he isn’t physically present in the scene.
It’s tragic, seeing Crash try to live his own life, seeing him already having to deal with a horrible father, seeing him try for happiness with his friendship with Roxane — and then seeing how no matter what, Burn happens to be by his side. More than tragic however, it’s also chilling, because unlike Harry Potter/Voldemort, Crash and Burn’s story is very much set in the real world. There are boys like Burn out there, and they may just be in your local school system.
Harper Collins has kindly offered two of my readers copies of Crash and Burn by Michael Hassan. Enter to win here: a Rafflecopter giveaway. (US and Canada only)
Thank you to Harper Collins for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.