One doesn’t plunge into Steve Almond’s latest non-fiction endeavor Candyfreak [Algonquin Books] for the story. There’s not a lot of plot beyond Almond’s obsession--or rather, his ‘freakdom’. Instead, each chapter, much like Almond’s wonderful fiction short stories, is a delicious bite-sized scenario of the industry, the history, the products themselves, portraits of other like-minded candyfreaks--and food for thought.
You won't be reading Candyfreak for a serious, academic history of confections, either—although you’ll get some of that. And you won’t learn enough about the processes or the ingredients to actually make it yourself (but as you read, you may start wondering if there are any cookies in the kitchen).
In this, Almond’s second book (he is the author of My Life in Heavy Metal also reviewed on this site), he explores and mourns the fate of the candy bars from his childhood with often hilarious anecdotes about lost treasures like the Caravelle and the Marathon Bar. (For instance, If you give a teenage boy a candy bar with a ruler on its back, he will measure his dick). Candyfreak especially indulges those who grew up in the 1970s; they will gleefully recall the black market value of Bubble Yum, and the elementary school hysteria that ensued from Pop Rocks.
Candyfreak readers will learn a lot about candy on their journey through the pages (Gasp! White chocolate isn’t really chocolate!) You’ll close the book knowing more than you ever wanted to about the American candy business: The machinery…the Big Three (M&M/Mars, Nestle and Hershey)…and those evil 'slotting fees' that are doing in the mom and pops at a terrible rate. Initially, it’s interesting, but by the fourth factory tour, this reader preferred to gloss over the mechanics and get to the gooey center: the fact that the book is really about the author.
Almond’s writing comes off with a strong voice, great honesty, and heart. At times, it’s pee-your-pants funny; other times you’ll feel your eyes tear up. And just because Almond has switched from fiction to non doesn’t mean he’s lost a participle of his gorgeous, sensual, and often hysterical prose. Get a load of this scene, when he visits a factory ‘enrobing’ (my new vocabulary word) chocolate onto Easter bunnies:
Simply: I could not stop watching the bunnies, the way the light struck the wet chocolate from above, the creamy falling away of the excess into a darkened pool below, the steel machinery flecked and streaked in brown. The workers overseeing the production line didn’t seem to know what to do. I myself didn’t know what to do. I was obviously experiencing some kind of dramatic psychic event, one that bordered on the disassociative. I had fallen into what I would later come to recognize as a freaktrance, a state of involuntary rapture induced by watching candy production at close range.
Throughout the book, Almond introduces us to various personalities beyond himself: his family members, presidents of candy manufacturers, and other 'freaks'—and the reader gets to know and even grows to love these people in (dare I say it?) their sweet, candid moments. That said, Candyfreak sums up the current state of the candy business, but it's really a memoir and personality portraits disguised as a light read. It’s a thoughtful, rich collection of feelings, facts, and philosophies posing as fluffy not stuffy (my own feeble attempt at a Three Musketeers joke, for those born in America before 1975).
You know, I can remember me and my friends taking the Marathon Bar challenge in the mid-70's (’You can’t eat a Marathon Bar fast’); shoving the entire foot-long pretzel of chocolate and caramel in our mouths. Our fourth-grade jaws ached as we tried to chew, laugh, and devour it whole. That’s a pretty good analogy of the Candyfreak experience: chewing through the technicalities sometimes grows ponderous; but there’s so much pleasure, good taste, and sheer decadence to consume right till the end. And who wants to read something this good so fast?
[Editor’s note—Almond tells us there is another collection of short stories on the way. Woo-hoo!]