Alligator Candy by David Kushner
Simon & Schuster, 2016; 256 pp
Reviewed by Charlie Riccardelli
David Kushner was four years old the last time he saw his older brother Jon. He remembers Jon on his bike outside their Florida home. David asked his brother to buy him candy at the convenience store before Jon took off into the woods, never to come home. The disappearance of Jon Kushner and the toll it had on his family is the focus of David Kushner’s emotionally brutal but ultimately moving memoir, Alligator Candy.
When Jon disappeared in 1973, David Kushner may have been too young to fully understand the extent to which the tragedy affected his family and his own life, but as he recounts in his story, David’s lack of knowledge ends up becoming the biggest asset in telling the tale because it allows the tragedy to unfold as Kushner’s first great act of journalism. Kushner offers a revealing portrait of himself as a child struggling through trauma—and the little details that will reveal themselves as crucial moments later in life.
Kushner remembers a cassette tape of his brother talking, the struggle of talking about how many siblings he had lest he have to mention the tragedy, and the sad realization on the day he learned he’d surpassed the age of Jon. Because his family tried to avoid the painful memories, Kushner began investigating the facts as a teen so he could better understand what actually happened. He also regularly returned to the events and the people involved to better understand how families and individuals grieve in the face of tragedy and the choices they make to survive. For Kushner, he also must contend with a memory in which he asked Jon to buy him candy that day and the fear that he might have sent Jon to his fate.
Alligator Candy can be an emotionally difficult book to read at times, but what really makes it an exemplary memoir is how Kushner never holds back his feelings and objectively discusses the choices his mother and father had to struggle with after Jon disappeared. While the book is very much about David Kushner, it’s also intimately connected to how his family made the most lasting impact in surviving tragedy.