Alli­ga­tor Candy

David Kush­n­er
  • Review
By – August 19, 2016

Par­ents of the ear­ly 70s might rec­og­nize the school por­trait of Jonathan Kush­n­er, an image of an eleven-year-old red­head in a red shirt made famous by his abduc­tion and bru­tal mur­der at the hands and whim of two unre­lat­ed men in Tam­pa, Flori­da in 1973.

The case was among the first in the spate of miss­ing chil­dren that esca­lat­ed to a cul­tur­al phe­nom­e­non across the Unit­ed States: milk car­ton kids, 10:00 tele­vi­sion PSAs, and grass­roots door-to-door cam­paigns that ter­ror­ized young fam­i­lies through the fol­low­ing two decades. Jon Kush­n­er was grabbed off his bicy­cle on short­cut through the woods for a can­dy run at the near­by 7‑Eleven, a quick ride from the home in which his par­ents still reside today. Alli­ga­tor Can­dy, a mem­oir new­ly writ­ten by the Kush­n­ers’ youngest son, David, opens with the author’s mem­o­ry of his brother’s depar­ture that morn­ing — his last mem­o­ry of Jon.

Only four years old when Jon dis­ap­peared, David grew up haunt­ed as much by what he knew of what hap­pened as by what he didn’t. Uncer­tain of the events of the case, David’s child­hood under­stand­ing of his brother’s death remained lim­it­ed to unsub­stan­ti­at­ed school­yard rumors, imag­i­na­tion unbri­dled by facts, and his best trans­la­tion of his par­ents’ and eldest brother’s reac­tions to each piece of undis­closed news until he found the resources — and courage — to dis­cov­er and con­tend with truth on his own.

Per­haps his dis­tance from the har­row­ing imme­di­ate expe­ri­ence of those around him at the time enabled David to write Jon’s sto­ry, to per­ceive what hap­pened not only to his broth­er but to his fam­i­ly and the com­mu­ni­ty sur­round­ing them more clear­ly than any­one else con­nect­ed to the tragedy could. The mem­oir is emblem­at­i­cal­ly named after a small detail from the day Jon was mur­dered that was either for­got­ten, denied, or blocked out in grief by every­one else: the mem­o­ry recount­ed in the begin­ning of the book that David alone retained, its very unre­li­a­bil­i­ty bond­ing David to that moment forever.

If David did not share in the same trau­ma as the rest of his fam­i­ly, how­ev­er, he under­went a par­al­lel trau­ma of his own — but then, that is the very nature of tragedy: those affect­ed con­sol­ing one anoth­er through pri­vate, sep­a­rate expe­ri­ences of grief. Read­ing Alli­ga­tor Can­dy, one sens­es that the project of this mem­oir might have been the only way David could ful­ly face the loss of his broth­er, even now. While Kushner’s default Rolling Stone voice and lyri­cal imagery in scenes of large and small sig­nif­i­cance alike might oth­er­wise feel a touch out of place, it is through such com­po­si­tion­al foci that he is able to con­front the nar­ra­tive, each flour­ish demon­strat­ing the com­fort the author pal­pa­bly draws from writing.

An inex­tin­guish­able eulo­gy for his broth­er, David Kushner’s mem­oir is the sto­ry of how one fam­i­ly found the strength to recov­er from the hor­rors of a liv­ing night­mare, a tes­ta­ment to the com­mu­ni­ty of friends, neigh­bors, and com­plete strangers that came togeth­er to search for a miss­ing boy and sup­port the bereaved fam­i­ly in the years to follow.

Relat­ed Content:

Nat Bern­stein is the for­mer Man­ag­er of Dig­i­tal Con­tent & Media, JBC Net­work Coor­di­na­tor, and Con­tribut­ing Edi­tor at the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and a grad­u­ate of Hamp­shire College.

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