Steve Almond is uniquely qualified to write a book about candy—after all, he’s eaten the stuff every day of his life. This addiction, and his lifelong tendency to use sugar as a surrogate for love and happiness, underscore Candyfreak, his exploration of the dying industry of independent candy manufacturers. As with his first book, the 2002 story collection My Life in Heavy Metal, Almond’s prose is wry, self-deprecating, and darkly funny. His personality keeps the book from becoming pedantic as he runs through the necessary facts: the history of sweets, candy’s meteoric rise in popularity between the world wars, and the marketplace domination by three major companies.
Almond also addresses industry challenges like the exorbitant racking fees demanded by large supermarket chains and the difficulty of transporting such a perishable item—the addictive, messy Valomilks, for instance, tend to explode at high altitudes, as Almond discovers after the flight home from the Kansas factory. Almond is most compelling when he visits the surviving family-owned candy factories, makers of cult sweets like Necco Wafers, Goo Goo Clusters, and Abba-Zabas. As Almond tours generations-old factories and hears about the sanguine plans of the family members who run them, he sees the story as universal: It’s an illustration of the Wal-Mart-ization of America.
Almond blames the demise of the once thriving regional candy industry on “upwardly mobile nomads.” He writes, “What people want . . . is a dependable oral experience, the comfort, as they hurl through airports and across state lines, of a few, familiar brands.” This sense of sad nostalgia, coupled with the loneliness of his solo journeys, compels Almond to make a few unnervingly personal revelations: the sorry state of his love life, a health scare. Too much information? Perhaps. But he justifies his oversharing with this observation: “The only time I forgot entirely about my impending death was when I lost myself in candy.”