HALLOWEEN always brings bogeymen to terrify children, but this year the bookstore holds its own terrors for parents. “I Shudder,” ($23.95, HarperCollins), the new book by the playwright and humorist Paul Rudnick, reveals a horrible truth no parent wants published: It is possible, it seems, to live on candy.
Mr. Rudnick is the living proof. At 51, 5-foot-10 and an enviably lean 150 pounds, Mr. Rudnick does not square with the inevitable mental image of a man who has barely touched a vegetable other than candy corn in nearly a half-century. Apparently, one can not only live on a dessert island, but can also do it happily and long.
“People always assume I’m lying,” said Mr. Rudnick earlier this month in his West Village apartment packed from ceiling to floor with Gothic ornamentation. “They always say: ‘That can’t be true. You’d be dead. Or huge.’ ”
But as Mr. Rudnick insisted (as he does in “I Shudder,” a collection of short pieces ranging from recollections to screeds), he is not dissembling or diseased. “There was never a time when I was not refined-sugar-centric,” he said flatly. “I was always appalled by almost all other foods; I could not understand why anyone wanted them. I did not like the taste, the smell, the concept.”
At the age of 6 he was even sent to a psychiatrist, who told his parents their son was otherwise well-adjusted, and to let him eat what he wanted and just see what happened.
“His advice was, basically, ‘Just let it go, otherwise, you will have to tie him down, force feed him, and shield your face from the projectile vomit,’ ” he recalled. “I was so dead certain about it, so completely unwilling to entertain any options that they basically had no choice.”
An invitation to take him to lunch hit a wall. He does not really eat meals, he said, more of a so-called grazer. For example, what he ate over the course of a recent, typical day was this: a plain bagel, a three-pack of Yodels, a small can of dry-roasted peanuts, some Hershey’s Kisses, and some breakfast cereal, which he eats by the handful, dry, out of the box.
(Previously acquainted with Mr. Rudnick and having heard of his dietary quirk, I had been at a Sunday lunch with him a couple years ago, where I noted that he ordered nothing and merely ate a delicacy or two from the pastry basket.)
“People imagine that I eat an entire chocolate cake for dinner,” he said. “They think of Willy Wonka-style gluttony, but that’s their fantasy.”
But surely his favorite time of year was upon us? The day when Mr. Rudnick’s dark-humored output and sugar-sweet intake come together in a rare convergence of trick and treat? True enough, he said, and agreed to tour a variety of New York confectioneries to refine the definition of his ideal treat.
First stop: The Food Emporium near his house, where the Halloween aisle received high marks. Though well-meaning friends always give him gourmet treats as gifts, he said, Mr. Rudnick turns up his nose at them. He doesn’t like gelato; he likes ice cream. He doesn’t like Maison du Chocolat or Godiva. He likes Kit Kats. And as it turns out, this view is not limited to candy.
“What I love about Halloween is its childhood honesty,” Mr. Rudnick said. “It’s about what children want rather than what parents want them to want.”
Recalling trick-or-treating as a child in suburban New Jersey, he’s still in awe of people who gave out full-size candy bars, and is still appalled by those people who dared to put apples in trick-or-treaters’ bags. “No,” he said. “Halloween is about free candy, not diet tips.”
Still distrustful of any kind of candy-coated health message, he loves to skewer the twisted ways adults rationalize eating what they love.
“One of the greatest urban legends of our time is that dark chocolate is a health food,” he said. We had moved on to Li-Lac, the cult chocolatier in the West Village and the only gourmet spot that gets the Rudnick seal of approval. He bought a big piece of milk chocolate almond bark. “I have now read countless interviews with movie stars where they talk about having a single square of dark chocolate every day — as if they have a prescription for it.”
Underscoring this point, we went to Milk Chocolate Central: the Hershey’s store in Times Square, the source of one of Mr. Rudnick’s favorite-ever gifts, a 5-pound, 18- inch-by-9-inch Hershey’s chocolate bar. We were met almost instantly with a unnerving clatter. In the corner of the store, a giant, gleaming machine stretching some 15 feet from floor to ceiling, was pouring a silvery stream of Hershey’s Kisses down a twin helix of chutes and raining them into a bucket.
We went right over. A charming saleswoman, Mary Anne by name, let Mr. Rudnick crank the giant wheels, which magically released another avalanche — this time of Hershey’s Miniatures.
Had he been to Hershey, Pa.?
“The happiest place on earth!” he exclaimed. “But sadly they don’t offer the full factory tour anymore. There’s only a faux tour that gives you a sense of the Hershey process instead of being able to stick your arm up to the shoulder into a vat of molten chocolate, which was my dream.”
After Hershey’s, the M&M store across the street was a total letdown — just loud music and mountains of M&M-themed merchandise. After this disaster, we paid his first visit to Dylan’s Candy Bar on the Upper East Side, offering nearly every conceivable kind of candy over three floors.
“It’s nice to see that Dylan has done something altruistic with her life, rather than merely following her father into retail,” said Mr. Rudnick (a dry reference to her father, Ralph Lauren). A display of hard-to-find Wonka candy bars reminded him of his all-time favorite book of childhood, Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”
“That was my ‘Bell Jar,’ my ‘To the Lighthouse,’ ” he said. “I thought that if it had been real they would just give me the factory — they wouldn’t even bother with a contest and those other kids.”
By then, we were both candied out — a feat achieved through few calories. I wondered if I could lose weight on an all-sugar diet, given how unappetizing it fast becomes.
For his part, Mr. Rudnick said that his latest blood tests were fine, and that he has had no more dental problems than any nonsugar-fixated members of his family. And, he added, his diet does include some foods, which, if not exactly health foods, do at least have a sugar level that is minor or nil, like Cheerios.
And for those who still think he should be dead from malnourishment, Suzanne Havala Hobbs, a registered dietician and a clinical associate professor at the Gillings School of Global Public Health at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, offered a different view.
“Some people defy all odds,” she said. “The body really can adapt to an amazing range of dietary conditions. I remember consulting for a group home, and there was a little girl there I always thought of as an air plant. She only ate white bread and fruit. I followed her for years, and she grew up all right. Somehow she got enough to grow on.”
She also thinks Halloween should be fun and sugar-packed. “I learned my lesson one year when I tried to be good and hand out boxes of raisins,” she said. “You can’t take life so seriously.”
As for Mr. Rudnick, he does not celebrate the holiday itself. “I’m one of those people who just leaves the basket outside, with the implied imperative: Don’t Knock.”
Which is probably just as well. You don’t want him setting an example.