I’ve been fixated on Mason Hoffenberg and Terry Southern’s Candy since I first came across it in college. I’ve read it out loud many times to try to capture and understand its rhythm; I’ve given many copies to friends. And yet, what is it? And—even more intriguingly, and more on this in a second—why is it?
Candy begins with exhilarating precision; the opening chapters are my favorite pages of any book ever written, with its exquisitely tuned language guiding us through an ecstatic parody of outrageous ego-driven meaninglessness, pulled off with the combination of subtle precision and insane audacity that you might find in a pilot successfully flying a plane under the Brooklyn Bridge. As it continues, the book’s writing gradually collapses, with an entropy that might well be described as obscene, into a tone of sloppy, lascivious wildness that syncs well with its plot. Along the way, it goes on extremely unnecessary tangents to satirize nearly everything imaginable to an audience of its time: psychotherapy, New York City, Hollywood screenwriting, Jewish mothers, quack doctors, New Age healing, progressive causes, pretension, naïveté, innocence, idealism, corruption, generosity, selfishness, spiritual searching, gurus, the male gaze, awareness of the male gaze, “daddy issues,” sexual repression, sexual liberation—as one review suggested, sex itself—and perhaps most of all, the reader who would buy such a book—a person they surely pictured on the banks of the Seine, scratching his head as to what the hell he was reading and whether it was turning him on or not.
The one story that comes close to matching the tone of Candy may be the story of Candy. The Candy Men, by Nile Southern, tells it well, as do a handful of other sources; it’s a story that is bizarrely, almost divinely consistent with the tone of the book itself. It’s well-known that a lot of ahead-of-their-time literary classics had to be first published as banned books, working their way out over decades. Many of these were published first by Maurice Girodias, the legendarily shady Parisian publishing figure who ran Olympia Press and was revered by readers in the know and reviled by writers who knew even more, who lucked and sleazed his way into a business publishing first editions of classics such as Nabokov’s Lolita, Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, and Henry Miller’s works when they were still banned in the U.S.
But Candy traveled in the opposite direction, against traffic. Girodias’s dirty-book bin was not the place of last resort—Southern and Hoffenberg deliberately sought it out as the destination into which they would smuggle their transcendent work of nihilist comedy brilliance. And that may be the funniest thing of all about this book: Just, well, why? It was supposed to be nothing more than a slim packet of smut, dashed off by two broke and brilliant writers for the brief arousal of horny expatriates in Paris. Why in the world did they bother to compose a book like … like this?
The unlikely journey of this book from smut bin to commemorative sixtieth-anniversary edition is just one too-good-to-be-true example of how the rebellious, paradoxical high-low culture mash-up of Candy’s metastory uncannily matches the tone of the book itself. Another is that the closest description of the book’s impossible-to-describe tone comes directly from J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, in a 1965 memorandum we can picture typed out in the same square-jawed, all-American bureaucratic humorlessness Southern was famous for satirizing: “Candy, for all its sexual descriptions and foul language, is primarily a satirical parody of the pornographic books which currently flood our newsstands. Whatever erotic impact or prurient appeal it has is thoroughly diluted by the utter absurdity and improbability of the situations described.”
The story of the film version, too, is impossibly true to this high culture–low culture cocktail of the book itself: the movie is an unabashed abomination, and yet it somehow features Marlon Brando and Richard Burton—two of the greatest screen actors of all time—who act opposite the first Miss Teen International winner, Ewa Aulin (as the all-American Candy) and Ringo Starr (as Emmanuel the Mexican gardener). (Brando, years later, reflected on the movie in the documentary Listen to Me Marlon, calling it “probably the worst movie I ever made,” and then piled on even further, musing aloud, “How could you do that to yourself ? Haven’t I got any pride left?”)
All of this—the brilliance and cheapness of both the book and its journey—has a unique cool to it. Let me here make the case for Terry Southern as the coolest figure of twentieth-century literature. He’s the author of two indelible cult classics, Candy—coauthored with the poet and Olympia veteran author Mason Hoffenberg—as well as another unique book even more famous in some circles, The Magic Christian, which awakened the inner mischief-for-mischief’s-sake spirit within me and nearly everyone who’s read it. He’s also the screenwriter of two counterculture landmarks, Easy Rider and Dr. Strangelove, each unmistakably infused with his deadpan ear for the rhythms and psychology of authority figures. And look: if you’re trying to find the coolest person you can, you could do worse than to pick up the cover of the Beatles’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and choose the only guy there wearing sunglasses.
In college, I had been searching about for literary heroes and had landed on Terry Southern for the reasons above. After reading Candy, I signed up for a meeting with my English professor—during the always-empty “office hours” that colleges offer to prove that their star academics are real and approachable people who totally care about students—just to try to make sense of Candy, which was not part of the class. I showed up and asked, “Have you read the book Candy?” “Yes,” nodded Philip Fisher, with a smile. “Candy, by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg?” He nodded again. I nodded then too. He nodded again. And I realized I had nothing else to say about it, and he didn’t either. I don’t know what there is to say about Candy, other than “ … right?” And so I said that. And he nodded again, and I left and never went to office hours again, and as far as I know, neither has anyone else.
So I guess that’s really all I have to say about this minor masterpiece (the coolest type of masterpiece): Right?
B. J. Novak is a writer and actor best known for his work on NBC’s Emmy Award–winning comedy series The Office as an actor, writer, director, and executive producer. He is also known for his stand-up comedy performances and his roles in motion pictures such as Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds and Disney’s Saving Mr. Banks. He is a graduate of Harvard University with a degree in English and Spanish literature.
Excerpted from Candy, by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg. Introduction copyright © 2018 by B. J. Novak. Published by arrangement with Grove Atlantic.