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Steve Almond’s ‘Candyfreak’: A Review

Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America
By Steve Almond

Reviewed by Robert Lalasz

(This review first appeared in the Raleigh News & Observer on 13 June 2004.)

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 — incredibly, yes, that is his real name — started young: getting seven cavities in a year, trick-or-treating deep into his teens, with 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 — a girl, that is,” 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 phrasemaker, the boy can pick it up and lay it down, with a pop-smart haughtiness akin to a very literate Jon Stewart. Stuck in an Omaha bus terminal, he 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 tasting, thus crossing over an invisible flavor threshold and allowing the product to start tasting less artificial. This is nothing to say of the Twizzlers texture, which falls somewhere between chitin and rain poncho.”

Such pinpoint jabs and low-octane standup keep “Candyfreak” moving for a while, 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 eight-inch-long gimmick that braided candlewax chocolate with caramel as tough as pine resin — contributed to my present need for bridgework.) Almond’s lazy but clever premise is that his reminiscences will evoke our own amen chorus of memories — that candy is so elemental and powerful, we’ll think his narrative is brilliantly evocative instead of just meandering.

But reading about Almond eating a candy bar you’ve never heard of isn’t the same as M.F.K. Fisher considering the oyster, even if you’re a vegetarian. Candy is a far more private — even solipsistic — experience than food, and “Candyfreak” amounts to a kind of pornography, with Almond’s rich sensibility only leading us back to his appetites. Oh, he does travel: to a dour candy bar historian and a wild-eyed chocolate technician, as well as to the New England Confectionery Company (home of the Necco Wafer) and Nashville’s Standard Candy Company (home of the seemingly inedible GooGoo Cluster).

But then Almond keeps going and going like some chocolate Energizer bunny, dragging his readers along on a 100-page tour of four small candymakers who are barely treading water. The little guys are plucky, 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 already seems to know this, though, from that embarrassed, slink-towards-the-door finish. In fact, “Candyfreak” has the bad-faith odor of Dave Eggers’ McSweeney’s literary journal — superb writing about stuff that’s not worth writing about, while the meaty things get lip service. There are 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. And 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 is turned on only by idle descriptions that furnish a highlight reel of quips.

That said, I do like Almond when he goes on a bit 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.”

What “Candyfreak” proves, though, is that candy is more a drug than a meal: selfish rather than shared, gratifying instead of sustaining, evanescent and not persistent. It makes the world go away, which is why we love it in the first place, and why you’ll choke on this book’s steady diet.

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