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Candy’s bad for you. And maybe so is Steve Almond’s Candyfreak, a memoir of his addiction to the sweet stuff that’s wrapped in a thin travelogue coating. The book tries halfheartedly to turn Paydays into Proustian madeleines, but Candyfreak is really just junkie lit—highs, cravings, scoring, and hoarding. The pen might be in Almond’s hand, but it’s candy that’s doing the talking.
Like all candy experts, Almond—yes, that is his real name—started young: getting seven cavities in a year, trick-or-treating deep into his teens, reacting to a father who schooled his sons in cocoa-butter percentages but otherwise left them alone. “If I had been the kind of kid who kept a diary,” Almond writes, “the entries from the years twelve to say, sixteen, would have read: Got high, ate candy.”
Somehow, Almond avoided a career at the gas pump and became a creative-writing teacher at Boston College, writing the short-story collection My Life in Heavy Metal as he refined his habit. (He keeps between three and seven pounds of candy on hand at any time.) As a phrase maker, the boy can pick it up and lay it down, with the pop-smart haughtiness of a literary Jon Stewart. And the improv works for quite a few pages, matching Almond’s impulsive approach to his book project—which was basically just an excuse to crisscross the country in late 2002, begging for free seconds from candy makers.
“He looked like a man brought out of storage and reinflated to not-quite life-size,” runs a typical passage, about Walter Mondale’s last run for the Senate. Stuck in an Omaha bus terminal, Almond whips out some wide-angle snark: “[T]he kids were running wild as a response to all the anxiety and their parents were overdoing the discipline—tears, recriminations, the white-hot building blocks of future arrests.”
And on the candy brands he hates, Almond’s sneering is world-class. “[Twizzlers’] flavor is so completely artificial,” he writes, “that I’ve often wondered if the production staff might not endeavor to make it just a little more artificial, thus crossing over an invisible flavor threshold and allowing the product to start tasting less artificial. This is to say nothing of the Twizzlers texture, which falls somewhere between chitin and rain poncho.”
Such pinpoint jabs and low-octane stand-up keep Candyfreak moving as Almond sails through a history of candy bars as well as accounts of his own misspent youth in the ’70s. (That’s when the horrible Marathon bar—an 8-inch-long gimmick that braided candle-wax chocolate with caramel as tough as pine resin—contributed to this writer’s present need for bridgework.) Almond’s clever but lazy premise is that his reminiscences will evoke our own amen chorus of memories—that candy’s so elemental and powerful, we’ll think his narrative is Tristram Shandy.
But actually, Candyfreak is just pornography, with Almond’s rich sensibility inevitably leading us back to his appetites. Oh, he does recount his travels: to a dour candy-bar historian and a wild-eyed chocolate technician, as well as to the New England Confectionery Co. (home of the Necco Wafer) and Memphis’ Standard Candy Co. (home of the seemingly inedible Goo Goo Cluster, a mystery to Northerners).
But then Almond keeps going and going, like some Energizer chocolate bunny, dragging his readers along on a 100-page tour of four small candymakers that are barely holding their ground against Nestlé, Hershey’s, and Mars. The little guys are plucky, and their prospects rate sad violins—but a little poignancy spreads a long way. And Almond’s always the star, anyway, his mouth constantly agape at yet another assembly-line scene out of Willie Wonka, his fingers forever stealing into this or that vat of nougat. Our taste for him gets spoiled well before the trip (and with it, the book) peters out.
Almond seems to sense this, though, given his embarrassed, slink-toward-the-door finish. In fact, Candyfreak has an odor of McSweeneyesque bad faith about it—not just its antique-sounding section headers (such as “A Depressing But Necessary Digression”), but also its feel, which is slyly shambling, almost daring you to call Almond on his aimlessness.
There is also pro forma political commentary in the Dave Eggers style, a few rhetorically perfect and quickly dropped paragraphs about American children’s obesity and the evils of candy-bar marketing and the plantation economics of cocoa and sugar production. Even Almond’s laments about candy as self-medication—how Caravelles and Bar Nones filled a fathomless hole passed on from his parents—have all the emotion polished out of them. Almond seems bored with summing up; he’s turned on only by his idle descriptions, which serve as a sort of a highlight reel of quips.
Almond can be entertaining when he goes on about candy—but only as deadpan parody of bad food writing:
The sweetness of the milk chocolate rushed across the tongue, played against the musky crunch of the nut, then faded. The bite finished with an intense burst of dark chocolate, softened by the buttery dissolution of caramel. What I mean here: there was a temporal aspect to the bar, a sense of evanescence and persistence.
Candyfreak does accomplish something, however. It proves that candy can be more drug than food: selfish rather than shared, gratifying instead of sustaining, evanescent and not enriching. It makes the world go away. Which is why we love it in the first place, and why we choke on this book’s steady diet. CP