On April 21, 2008, Steven “Crash” Crashinsky saved more than a thousand people when he stopped his classmate David Burnett from taking their high school hostage armed with assault weapons and high-powered explosives. You likely already know what came after for Crash: the nationwide notoriety, the college recruitment, and, of course, the book deal. What you might not know is what came before: a story of two teens whose lives have been inextricably linked since grade school, who were destined, some say, to meet that day in the teachers’ lounge of Meadows High. And what you definitely don’t know are the words that Burn whispered to Crash right as the siege was ending, a secret that Crash has never revealed.
Michael Hassan’s shattering novel is a tale of first love and first hate, the story of two high school seniors and the morning that changed their lives forever. It’s a portrait of the modern American teenage male, in all his brash, disillusioned, oversexed, schizophrenic, drunk, nihilistic, hopeful, ADHD-diagnosed glory. And it’s a powerful meditation on how normal it is to be screwed up, and how screwed up it is to be normal.
This is a hard review for me to write. On the one hand, it’s an emotionally powerful book about two broken boys. On the other, it has one of the least likable main characters I’ve ever read in YA fiction.
Let’s start there. Steven “Crash” Crashinsky has been hailed as a hero for stopping David “Burn” Burnett from killing his classmates. You learn pretty quickly that while Crash is a hero, he’s also an asshole. And, to be honest, this fact makes him so real I’m almost certain Crash could be a teen guy living somewhere in America. For that reason, I’m positive teen boys will love this book.*
But realistic doesn’t mean likable, and I had an incredibly hard time with Crash, who divides his time between smoking pot and screwing girls. I’m no stranger to the man-whores in YA fiction, but for some reason Crash’s treatment of girls was more grating. I’m pretty sure that if I ever came across Crash in real life I’d knee him in the balls before breaking his nose.
That said, the narrative alternates between Crash’s present-day antics and his past—and that’s where I wanted to stay. Learning how Crash and Burn met, how their relationship grew and evolved, was so compelling that I couldn’t stop turning the pages. Those chapters in the past—when we learned about Crash’s home life and Burn’s instability—helped me sympathize with Crash in a way I couldn’t the minute the narrative switched back to the present day. To be 100 percent honest, the chapters set in the past were what kept me from setting the book aside when I couldn’t take present-day Crash anymore.
I should also mention that Crash has serious ADHD, which affects the way the book is written (it’s a bit rambling at times, which felt really authentic). But more than that, it’s a raw look at what some kids with ADHD go through in school and at home. Hassan did a phenomenal job showing Crash’s struggles in school, as well as his parents’ and his teachers’ struggles in dealing with his learning disability.
It wasn’t always easy to watch the horrible way some of the adults in Crash’s life reacted to his disability, but I felt like it was necessary, at least for me, because I had no idea ADHD could be so emotionally distressing.
There were times my heart broke for Crash, whose dad couldn’t connect with the way his mind works and resorted to calling him stupid, who struggled with his medications. It’s a really heartbreaking look at life with ADHD, though it didn’t soften me enough toward Crash that I could get past his general douchebaggery.
And I think that’s where readers will be divided. Some won’t be able to get past the unlikable Crash. Others will find him refreshingly realistic and his story often heartbreaking and intensely moving. I won’t say any more because there is a mystery here: Specifically, what did Crash say to stop Burn from killing his classmates? And, in general, what happened to Burn to get him to that place?
*Though, here’s your warning that the book’s packed with curse words, drugs, and sex.