Politics & Policy

Chocolate-Covered Rant

An otherwise sweet narrative is poisoned by bitter politics.

This is the first day of June, meaning it’s the first of National Candy Month, meaning it’s the first of what is probably Steven Almond’s favorite month.

#ad#Almond is the author of the recently released Candyfreak, and, as the eponymous title suggests, is himself obsessed with candy. Almond (yes, it’s his real name) claims to have eaten a piece of candy every day of his life; he thinks about candy at least once an hour; he keeps between three and seven pounds of candy in his house at all times. Almond’s childhood (and adolescent, and adult) memories are hung on sugary pegs: Events, acquaintances, and geographic locations–all are associated with some particular brand of candy.

Given his passion for the sweet stuff, it makes sense that Almond–a journalist turned creative-writing professor–would write about it: recounting, creatively, his intimate personal history with candy, and documenting, as a journalist, the state of independent candy-makers in America.

When he sticks to candy, Almond is marvelous. His descriptions of the various treats of his past, and the ones he encounters on his tour through “the candy underbelly of America” (visits to regional candy companies), are delightfully evocative. Caravelles, Necco Wafers, Haviland Thin Mints, Five Star Bars, Peanut Chews, Goo Goo Clusters, Twin Bings, Valomilks, Abba Zabbas–all are described in delicious detail. Caramel and chocolate practically drip gloppily from the pages; the reader is caught in a snowstorm of whirling peanuts, crisped rice, and coconut flakes–so much so that Almond’s writing should carry a Surgeon General’s Warning: “Reading May Cause Irreparable Damage to the Waistline and Teeth.” It is impossible to read Candyfreak without requiring a sugar fix.

Almond does an equally fine job giving the reader access to the figures he encounters on his journey through Candyland: independent candy-company presidents and owners, factory-line workers, fellow “freaks” (collectors of old-time candy memorabilia, candy historians, and out-and-out sugar addicts). Regional accents and attitudes are faithfully captured, physical descriptions leave little to the imagination, and these personalities benefit from Almond’s almost-novelistic dedication to “character development.”

The central character, of course, is Almond himself. Theoretically, this would be just fine: The book is part memoir, after all. But it is where Almond inserts himself–or more accurately, his politics–into his journalistic chronicle of candy production that Candyfreak becomes less sweet.

The gist of Almond’s account is this: The “Big Three” candy companies–Nestlé, Mars, and Hershey’s–have driven out the competition, gobbling up all of the small independent companies. The result is a lack of variety, an end to regional brands, and the disappearance of some of Almond’s childhood favorites. “Candy companies,” he writes, “are servants of late-model capitalism, just as surely as Exxon and Dow. They dehumanize workers, both here and abroad, and pump out pollution and provide an indulgence that is unconscionable, given the great many people on the planet who are starving to death.”

For Almond, Big Business–embodied by these large manufacturers–is a villainous scourge; but it does not bear sole responsibility for candy’s decline. Almond blames consumers, too: “And now that our country consists largely of upwardly mobile nomads, most of the exotic brands are gone, anyway. What people want these days is a dependable oral experience, the comfort, as they hurl through airports and across state lines, of a few, familiar brands.”

One gets the sense that Almond’s resentment of the American consumer is thinly disguised contempt for Americans, in general. Later, the veil comes off:

If you ever want to know what America really looks like… [t]ake a bus from Sioux City to Kansas City, via Omaha and Marysville. Here is where America lives, more often than not overweight, beset by children, fast-food fed, television-dulled, strongly perfumed, running low on options and telling their stories to whomever will listen, hatching schemes, self-dramatizing, preaching doomed sermons, dreaming of being other people in other lives.

Middle America might have something to say about that. It might also take umbrage at Almond’s overt partisanship: Complaining about a fit of depression suffered while on his candy tour in November of 2002–a fit exacerbated by watching Walter Mondale lose the late Paul Wellstone’s Senate seat–Almond lapses into an anti-Bush diatribe. In part:

Two years earlier, I’d sat in front of another TV and watched him steal the presidency in broad daylight. Then a bunch of vicious airborne murderers had come along and scared the common sense out of everyone. In one morning, they’d managed to bestow upon this evangelical simpleton an air of presidential dignity. He saw his chance and bounced the rubble in Afghanistan and kept the bellows of war going (Iraq was next) and now the Democrats were too chickenhearted to oppose him. It was the poor who were going to pay, as they always do, and who gave a damn about them?

The baffled reader stops to ask: What on earth does the 2000 election have to do with Charleston Chews? Nothing, of course; Almond’s partisan digressions are totally out of place. Yet it’s the relevant indulgences of standard leftist hyperbole that are most damaging to Candyfreak. After recounting an amusing episode at the Annabelle factory, Almond gushes, “I was relieved to find that [president Susan Karl] ran a factory where little individualistic flourishes like soldering your name onto a batch roller were to be laughed at, as opposed to what would happen to you at Mars headquarters, for instance, which is that you would be escorted from the plant and shot.”

What does Almond buy with this chuckle at Mars’s expense? Nothing, except the loss of credibility. Of course the Big Three–and Big Business at large–can be proven villainous, if you set them up as straw men.

This is the great shame of Candyfreak: An otherwise excellent piece of writing, and a fine tribute to American traditions and institutions, is poisoned by Almond’s belief–of inexplicable origin–that food criticism and economic analysis are somehow improved by reminding the reader that one is an enlightened liberal. (Not that Almond is completely enlightened: How many PC types would express admiration for a candy-maker by writing, “Take me home and love me long time, GI,” or lament the loss of treats named “Dixie,” “Fat Emma,” “Big Chief,” or “Wampum”?)

In his first chapter, Almond classifies a handful of disfavored candies–including Marshmallow Peeps, Chuckles, and Jordan Almonds–as MWMs, or “Mistakes Were Made.” The label applies to every political diatribe in Candyfreak, and these mistakes give an otherwise sweet story an unnecessarily bitter aftertaste.

–Meghan Clyne is an NR associate editor.

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