The first part of Candyfreak is a sort of confectionary manifesto, a summing-up of the author's deep-seated beliefs about candy, and the role of candy in his admittedly complex psyche. We're given a fast-paced tour through Almond's childhood candy memories and his current sugar-consuming patterns, although the narrative is often derailed by tangential, funny rants about unsatisfactory candies ("Boston Baked Beans: If you are an actual peanut, why are you not covered in chocolate? Why are you covered, instead, in some kind of burnt-tasting brick red shell? Is the idea that you resemble a baked bean supposed to make you more alluring?") and glowing reminisces about candy bars that no longer exist. Almond is unjustifiably fond of the word "freak," which in his usage means "obsession" or "addiction," and which he uses to cloying excess throughout the first half of the book. (Annoyingly, he also verbs the noun, saying, for example, "We may not understand why we freak on a particular food".)
The second part of the book is where the action, such as it is, gets going. Almond embarks on a whirlwind interstate tour of a handful of struggling independent confectioners. His primary goal is to gobble free samples, but he is also out to discover what keeps the little guys going in a market dominated by giant conglomerates like Hershey's and Mars. Traveling to the factories where lesser-known treats like Peanut Chews, Valomilk, and Five Star bars are made, Almond sketches brief portraits of the men and women holding the fort (often, they are the fourth or fifth generation of a family business). It turns out, not too surprisingly, that the motivation is a mix of sugary nostalgia and entrepreneurial pluck. But there's a palpable, fatalistic resignation underlying the candymakers' determined cheer: one of the owners admits that he's been discussing the sale of the business, and another sells out to a conglomerate a few months after Almond's visit. The days of handmade candy bars lovingly turned out by small, family-owned businesses are, sadly, over.
Almond wanders off into a tangle of digressions, ranging from his hypochrondriacal self-diagnosis of testicular cancer to a post-9/11 musing on the failures of democracy. The book's cover features a quote comparing Steve Almond to Dave Eggers, which is eerily apt: both Eggers and Almond are thirty-something slackers with food names, who blame their problems as adults on insufficient adoration in childhood.
In the end, this book is a bit like a mismatched jumble of things that are good separately. Almond clearly has passion for his subject, and he's often funny, but his manic, elaborately ironic self-deprecation has the distinctly desperate whiff of someone who's trying too hard. Candyfreak is a pleasure to bite into - maybe not perfect, but I enjoyed it. But try it for yourself. Pick up a copy! Another book I need to recommend -- very much on my mind since I purchased a copy off Amazon is "The Losers' Club: Complete Restored Edition," a funny, highly entertaining little novel I can't stop thinking about.