I just read Candy Freak by Steve Almond. The book, as suggested by its title, is about Steve Almond's obsessions with candy bars. He spends a lot of time describing his childhood experiences with candy bars, but the main topic of each chapter is the exploration of candy bar factories, especially the small regional ones that make little-known candy bars with imaginative names. I've never heard of many of the brands he features, much less tasted them, but I googled around for photos to help myself imagine what he was talking about.
Almond is obsessed by the fate of these obscure candy bars, a sad declining fate which is pretty much sealed. Mars, Hershey, and Nestle pay tens of thousands of dollars to super markets and other mainstream candy sellers for the shelf space for their products (which Almond seems to have nothing against, just that they won't let him tour their factories). No matter how good or how locally popular obscure candy bars may be, the small and often eccentric manufacturers can't afford these fees. So they are sold in gas stations or dollar stores or mom-and-pop places where only candy freaks like the author or neighborhood kids or whatever will buy them.
Almond is therefore very sad. He's a sad man, and he slowly introduces the reader to any number of sources of sadness and freaking out in his life. I don't want to go into this area of the book -- too depressing. Candy bars for him are an escape from what could be seen as neurotic self-absorption and messed-up memories. He calls his existential state "the loneliness, the creeping sense of failure," and he harbors the hope that "the pleasures of candy would help me beat a path from my despair." (p. 155) Jeez. For this he embarked on a nation-wide tour of candy factories.
Mostly, it's a very freaky book, but unlike a lot of books, it isn't guilty of misrepresenting itself: Candy Freak. Yes.
The greatest writerly skill Almond displays is describing tastes of candy bars.
He bites into one and writes: "The dark chocolate shell gave way to an intense burst of sweet, chewy fruit. The texture was soft enough to yield to the teeth, yet firm enough to absorb the musky undertones of the chocolate." This candy bar turns out to be "a dried cherry, infused with raspberry and covered in a Select Origin 75 percent dark chocolate." (p. 104) Yes, a premium post-modern chocolate bar, photo at right.
But Almond is just as rapturous about dozens of other candy bars that have been manufactured pretty much the same way and on the same antique equipment for nearly a century, and are still made by the descendants of the founding candy-makers. And he describes each factory and each owner in great and remarkably varied detail.
For me, this is the worst week of the year to hear about all these candy bars, because Monday was Halloween, and I spent at least the last 2 weeks in October on a kind of Snickers and Butterfinger bender. Honest -- I only ate one Snickers bar between last Halloween and this October, and that was on the road when we stopped at a gas station that didn't really have any real food. But I digress from Almond's talents, and his great success in documenting the last of the small-scale candy makers. For this, he is in fact widely recognized and often quoted. Freaky!