Brian Conway's crime thriller is a slow-burning debut de force that's parked on the rocks.
OST CAMPERS KNOW
what a rough week looks like. But Brady Sullivan, the protagonist at the center of Sandusky Burning, takes a rough week to a whole new level. What level is that exactly? The drugged thenblackmailed-for-access-to-hissecurity-clearance level. This is Bryan W. Conway's first novel, and it opens with the hair-raising scene of an RV screeching sidelong behind a train it's chained to. If you're left wondering what happened, you're meant to. Conway's narrative then takes you one week back, passing the baton in first-person narratives that keep the story moving and the characters (there are many) in context. Some novels, like Erin Gordon's Peeps, use the RV as a vehicle for their story. Sandusky Burning is another matter. The campground itself is the central setting of the novel, and Conway clearly knows his way around—inside the RV and out— keeping you hopping from campsite to campsite with the action. (Like any campground, it would be convenient if there was a map.) Sandusky is an unfortunate name for a town (a real one), and in this work of fiction, it lives up to its horrific name.
Beneath its unassuming surface as an overnight tourist trap for a local theme park, the campground is a din of criminal activity—where trafficking and extortion are the real business. The novel's most convincing characters are employees (in one fashion or another) of the local crime lord, Randy, who owns the campground and operates out of an up-armored and bulletproofed trailer on site. Readers quickly meet the skeevy Chuck, petty and possessive of his golf cart, gulling guests into sharing too much information over beers. Then there's the brutal Sam, whose thuggish, sneering menace shadows every page he's on. When Brady Sullivan, an estranged husband reluctantly summering in his RV, lets it slip that his work requires a security clearance, it doesn't take long for the bad guys to pounce. Fortunately, a fellow camper and Army veteran, Mike, has Brady's back; unfortunately, neither Brady nor Mike has any idea how much black water they're in.
It's helpful for a reader to know that while the book is a thriller, it takes its time ramping up. Even so, when it does ramp up, the action rolls like movie scenes from “Taken”—night raids from lake yachts, druggings, poisonings, interrogations, shootouts, and a dramatic return to the first scene with the train. As a first novel, there's some expected room for polish. An unusual amount
of time is spent detailing the drinking habits of all-too-many characters—decisions whether to drink or not (almost always to drink) and then followed by rather elongated descriptions of each hangover. Unavoidably, you're left with the impression that the novel's length could be neatly reduced and the pace greatly enhanced if these descriptions were spaced out with more … moderation. Likewise, other descriptions—geography and apparel choices—can get a little superfluous, placed as they are in first-person narratives.
Often, descriptions seem to help set the scene for the reader, even when they're unimportant to the speaker in the narrative. None of this, however, totally derails the novel off its train-bound course. Like its beginning, the end of Sandusky Burning is abrupt—clearly a climatic finish intended to drive us to Conway's next novel, Sandusky Reckoning, where the story continues. The finish is full of surprises, but perhaps none is more arresting than the final chapter, where Conway gently shepherds a character off-stage. The achingly tragic exit leaves the reader with a clear suspicion—that Conway's pen has an even greater range than his current odometer shows.