Tuesday, June 28, 2016

ALLIGATOR CANDY :: David Kushner

"Kids grow up hearing fairy tales, but the biggest fairy tale of all, I realized at the age of four, is that life is safe."

David Kushner is an award-winning journalist, having won the New York Press Club award for Best Feature Reporting. He's also contributing editor of Rolling Stone and a prolific writer whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Wired, New York Times Magazine, New York, GQ, and Playboy. Kushner's work has also been included in The Best American Crime Reporting, The Best Music Writing, and The Columbia Journalism Review’s Best Business Writing anthologies.

Obviously no stranger to serious topics, Kushner has now mined the depths of his and his family's own painful and tragic past with a new memoir, Alligator Candy. The title refers to the treat four-year-old David asked older brother Jon to bring back from his bike ride through the woods to the nearby convenience store. That was the last time David saw Jon alive.

It is difficult enough, perhaps even impossible, for an adult mind to wrap around such a thing as the loss of a child to abduction and murder. But how is a little boy to understand and deal with it? How can parents survive the ordeal themselves while trying to guide their other children through it intact? Alligator Candy is the soul-baring and heartbreaking account of David's recollection and reexamination of Jon's disappearance and murder and the entire Kushner family's tragically-altered path through the future that resulted.

Growing up in the Florida suburbs, David and his older brothers Jon (11) and Andy (13) had what most other kids growing up in  1970s America had - freedom. "October 28, 1973 began like any other Sunday." By the end of that day, the lives of the Kushners would be forever changed as the family of five became one of four and two loving, smart, generous people were left to pick up their own pieces while at the same time try to keep life going for their two remaining boys.

Unless we've gone through it, and I hope you haven't, none of us knows what this looks like. What this feels like. How you  make your way forward. Reading about how this one family waded their way through the morass was both an educational lesson in humanity and loss, and what felt like an intrusion into a sacred space where outsiders don't belong.

Alligator Candy is written through two lenses. The first is that of David Kushner the adult journalist, who pieces together the facts and circumstances surrounding his brother's disappearance and ultimate death thirty years after it happened, conducting interviews and reviewing police files relating to the crime. The other is David Kushner the son and brother, looking back at his four-year-old self, a lens of confusion and mystery. The Kushner family, a lovely family you can't help but fall in love with, particularly David's parents, couldn't talk about Jon or his murder ("It was too scary," his mother would relate years later), leaving each of them to struggle alone while trying to do their best for the others:
We were once a family in our own solar system, like any family, and then we were cast out of orbit, each of us drifting into our own time and space, occasionally feeling the gravity of one another's pull. I can see my mother coming into my room after another tantrum of mine and rubbing my back, singing a lullaby to comfort me. I don't see my father. I don't see Andy. And before long, my mother isn't there, and my room is silent and dark. Outside my room, there's a windowless hallway with a yellow shag carpet. My parents are in their room at one end. Andy is in his at the other. Jon's room is empty. The doors are shut.
Why read this book, a story of violence, loss, destruction and pain? That's a good question, and one I ask myself when I read books such as this. I think part of it is a feeling of obligation to bear witness. Not just to the Kushner family, but to the world at large. To remember and give name to people who have been lost and have lost, even if we don't know them and will never meet them. To resist the urge to bury one's head in the sand and pretend there is no evil in the world. The other, and perhaps more important, is humanity. It's often easy to lose sight of the fact that people all around us are going through things we may know nothing about. A reminder to be kind, to be gentle, as best we can.

STREET SENSE:  This is not an easy book to read from a subject matter perspective. It is sad and horrible and painful. But it is an easy book to read from a prose and story perspective. Kushner is a no-nonsense writer, but his writing is also quite beautiful and thoughtful. I recommend this book to anyone who has similar feelings as those I expressed in the paragraph above. It's very well done.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  It was the early seventies. The Age of Aquarius had given way to the "Free to Be You and Me" generation. We were unbuckled and unrestrained, free from seat belts and helmets or meticulously organized playdates. Our parents let us climb over the seats of our smoke-filled station wagon, puffing on candy cigarettes and, on road trips, sleeping way in the back. When we had a stretch of hours to play, they let us put the free in free time, wandering off to learn and explore and find adventures. They shared our innocence. They hadn't learned to be afraid.

COVER NERD SAYS:  I hadn't heard about this book when I saw the cover and it immediately drew me in. Even with the bright font colors and the simple image of the bike wheel, there was something dark about it that I can't even put my finger on. Perhaps that black background. I also like that there is nothing gratuitous or blatantly violent about the cover. The book includes evil, but it's not all about the evil. It's about good people struggling with the repercussions of evil. Whatever the reason this attracted me, it did its job well, and I appreciate this cover for its simplicity. Well done.

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About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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