Alligator Candy (Simon & Schuster, 2016) is painful to read. The memoir, written by David Kushner, relates what for most of us is unimaginable: the vile, vicious, pointless murder of an eleven-year-old boy and the experience of living on in the aftermath.
The boy was Kushner’s older brother, Jonathan, whom Kushner last saw biking off to a 7-Eleven and intent on buying the candy that the book is named after. What the author makes of his brother’s lost life becomes a kind of mosaic of remembrances from family, friends, communities, and even killers. That Kushner can convey what many would flinch away from is a testament both to his deft storytelling and his insistence on examining every facet of his brother’s life, as if only a full reckoning of Jon’s story can mend the hole that his murder left behind. Yet, ironically, some of the quieter moments in the book do get swallowed up as Kushner takes us on a chase to reconstruct that terrible crime.
One of the aspects of Kushner’s memoir that truly stands out is the way memory itself takes center stage. No doubt this is in part because his story can’t really be told any other way—Kushner was only four years old when his brother was killed and has just a handful of mental images from when his family was intact. (If you’re curious to see how this unusual deficiency of memory plays out in the early pages of Alligator Candy, Rolling Stone has a well-chosen excerpt from the book posted here.)
Since Kushner was so young at the time, he wasn’t given all the details of his brother’s death. Eventually, this knowledge vacuum takes its toll in the fear, denial, and guilt that shaped Kushner’s inner world growing up. But Jon’s absence also awakened a desire in Kushner to piece together a complete picture of Jon, one that includes as much detail as can be found. Within the book, a detective story starts to unfold on two fronts: as Kushner allows himself to get closer to the unvarnished truth of Jon’s final hours, we as readers finally come to witness the depth of that tragedy and the strength with which community members fight back.
I should mention here that, when I said this book was a painful read, I wasn’t kidding. Readers with vivid imaginations and easily turned stomachs, be warned. Kushner is a journalist, and as such his writing style is blunt and visceral. He doesn’t shy away from immersing his readers in the experience, even when that experience is his brother’s gruesome death. The memoir’s later chapters read less like memoir and more like true crime drama obsessed with the tiniest details: Jon Kushner’s red hair, the camp patch on his shorts, the candy in the memorable gator-shaped dispenser that becomes one of the key pieces of evidence that gets the killers turned in. The story is without a doubt a page turner, but its stark brutality might turn certain readers off.
I also found that, although Kushner makes an admirable effort to include all kinds of material, from his mother’s journal entries to police officers’ recollections to goofy stories written by Jon himself, the power of the murder story tends to overshadow the tales that come before and after. To me, this wasn’t surprising—writing about everyday lives, even those overshadowed by the memory of murder, is a much more subtle task than writing about actual murder. Kushner includes lots of witty details about the remote-controlled toys, peace signs, and “jewfros” of the 1970s as well as inspiring details about his family’s remarkable strength, but many of these non-crime-related sections of the book simply drag. When I first read the book, I wanted to find something new in these pages, something powerful about survival to mirror the magnitude of the calamity that the Kushners were forced to endure. Instead, the wisdom the author passes along feels fairly familiar: talk to people, find friends, keep going because you have to. In the wake of reading about such a harrowing experience, sentiments like these are a bit disappointing.
But maybe that’s my problem. Maybe I’m asking too much of a memoirist who, at age four, watched his big brother cycle off into the woods and disappear forever. Maybe I’ve been so scarred inside from life in the 21st century that simple acts of hope no longer have the power to compel. I can’t say for sure. I will say, though, that Alligator Candy is an ambitious, brave, and powerful book, and one that will stick with me for a very long time.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Melissa Frederick is a writer and blogger from suburban Philadelphia. Her poetry and prose have appeared in numerous publications, including Crab Orchard Review, DIAGRAM, Strange Horizons, Mid-American Review, Helen: A Literary Magazine, Moon City Review, and Queen Mob’s Tea House. Her poetry chapbook, She, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2008. Follow her on Twitter at @msficklereader.