Monday, November 19, 2012

Ten of the best Twinkies in fiction

You are what you eat, goes the old what better way for authors to round out their fictional characters than by what they eat?

When authors want to show that characters don't know or don't care about (the lack of) nutritional value of what they eat, a certain specificity about junk food choices goes a long way. If Hostess Brands really does go bust, future fast food foragers may have to reach for something other than Twinkies.

Here are ten characters at least partly defined by their attitude toward Hostess Twinkies:

(1) In Stephen King's The Stand, a virus kills off 99% of America's population. One of the survivors, Harold Lauder, driven in part by his unrequited love for Frannie, will later dispatch even more survivors with a bomb. A prelude to the later pyrotechnics:
They had a picnic lunch on the par: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Hostess Twinkies, and a large bottle of Coke each....

"I've been thinking about what I'm going to do," Harold said. "Don't you want the rest of that Twinkie?"

"No, I'm full."

Her Twinkie disappeared into Harold's mouth in a single bite. His belated grief hadn't affected his appetite, Frannie observed, and then decided that was a rather mean way to think.
Perhaps Harold would have had better luck making a love connection had he given more thought to wining and dining Fran. Bonus signifer: King plays off the urban legend that Twinkies, because of their synthetic ingredients and preservatives, have an extremely durable shelf life and would still be around and edible in a post-apocalyptic era.

(2) In The Bonesetter's Daughter, Amy Tan's fourth novel, Ruth looks back on her childhood and the resentment she sometimes felt at her mother LuLing's strict parenting. An instance:
Ruth had not grown up with flowers in the house. She could not remember LuLing ever buying them. She had not thought this a deprivation until the day she went grocery shopping with Auntie Gal and her cousins. At the supermarket in Saratoga, ten-year-old Ruth had watched as they dumped into the cart whatever struck their fancy at the moment, all kinds of good things Ruth was never allowed to eat: chocolate milk, doughnuts, TV dinners, ice cream sandwiches, Hostess Twinkles. Later they stopped at a little stand where Auntie Gal bought cut flowers, pink baby roses, even though nobody had died or was having a birthday.
(3) Sissy Hankshaw, the protagonist of Tom Robbins' Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, finds herself at the Rubber Rose, a beauty ranch-spa. She's happy to learn that breakfast in bed is a feature at the ranch...until she's served "decaffeinated coffee with saccharine, fresh grapefruit without sugar and a piece of Melba toast...."

But on her fifth day, breakfast is "a double-meat cheeseburger, a package of Hostess Twinkies, a cold can of Dr. Pepper and a Three Musketeers bar...." The meal has been ordered up by Bonzana Jellybean, the cowgirl who soon appears wearing "a skirt so short that if her thighs had been a clock the skirt would have been five minutes to midnight... She flashed honey thighs when she walked, her breasts bounced like dinner rolls that had gotten loaded on helium and, between red-tinged cheeks, where more baby fat was taking its time maturing, she had a little smile that could cause minerals and plastics to remember their ancient animate connections."

How better to paint a carefree character like Bonzana Jellybean than by her bouncy demeanor and loose approach to fashion and diet?

(4) Twinkies are just sort of food that folks take to a fishing camp, underscoring a break from everyday concerns about things like eating well. In David Wroblewski's The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, they also highlight the dietary straits facing a semi-starving boy and his dogs who live in the woods:
[Edgar] became an expert burglar of vacation cottages and fishing shacks. Mornings, while the campers fried bacon and flipped pancakes, he and the dogs lingered in the weeds; later, those same cabins would stand empty, ripe for plundering. He learned to enter without breaking, and always left without taking enough to be noticed. He carried few supplies, and none that would tie him down. A can opener and a jackknife and, later, when their diet made his teeth and gums feel buzzy, a toothbrush. A child’s Zebco spin-casting rod, small enough to carry through the woods. A fisherman’s satchel with a bobber and some hooks set in a piece of cardboard. With a little skill, he provided for them all-panfish, mainly, but sometimes a bass or a bullhead, too. Plenty of nights they went to sleep hungry, but seldom starving. The cabins yielded Twinkies and Suzie-Q’s and Ho Hos by the armful, deviled ham and custard pies and corn chips and peanut butter to eat straight from the jar, handfuls of Wheaties and Cap’n Crunch washed down with soda, and an endless procession of wieners and salami and sardines and Hershey bars. Occasionally he even found dog food, which the dogs gobbled from his palm like the most uncommon delicacy.
(5) Lula is introduced as a minor character working as a hooker in One For the Money, the first book of Janet Evanovich's "Stephanie Plum" series; over a dozen books into the series, Lula evolves into a file clerk and sometime partner for Stephanie. (In the big-screen adaptation of One For the Money, Lula is played by Sherri Shepherd.) In Finger Lickin' Fifteen, Stephanie introduces her sidekick: "Lula's got a plus-size personality and body, and a petite-size wardrobe." At a moment of crisis, Lulu's socioeconomic position shows through in her choice of comfort food:
"Hell yeah, I'm okay. Don't I look okay? I'm just freakin' is all. I need a doughnut or something." She went to my kitchen and started going through cabinets. "You don't got nuthin' in here. Where's your Pop-Tarts? Where's your Hostess Twinkies and shit? where's your Tastykakes? I need sugar and lard and some fried crap."
(6) Just as Twinkies are an irrational option for nutrition, so too are they a good prop to show the irrationality of much domestic discourse. In Nora Roberts' Sea Swept, adult brothers find themselves sharing housekeeping duties. When Phillip asks Cam to make a grocery run for a few items, Cam returns with more than a half-dozen loaded bags. It's not just the quantity with which Phillip has an issue:
"You bought Twinkies? Twinkies? Are you one of the people who believe that white stuff inside them is one of the four major groups?"

Cam's riposte: "Look, pal, he who goes to the store buys what he damn well pleases. That's a new rule around here."
That argument would lack the same power--both brothers have a good point, both should probably yield-- had Cam returned with, say, broccoli.

(7) Sometimes eating Twinkies signifies that a character lacks awareness of good nutrition. Sometimes it illustrates he's stoned and chooses to ignore such bourgeois preoccupations and healthy eating. And sometimes it's a way to show a brainiac's lack of concern for nutritional sustenance and proper hygiene.  From The Burning Wire by Jeffery Deaver:
He led her down more corridors and into another building. More stairs and finally they arrived at his office. She stifled a laugh at the clutter. The place was filled with computers and instruments she couldn't recognize, hundreds of bits of equipment and tools, wires, electronic components, keyboards, metal and plastic and wood items in every shape and color.

And junk food. Tons of junk food. Chips and pretzels and soda, Ding Dongs and Twinkies. And Hostess powdered sugar doughnuts, which explained the dandruff on his clothes.

"Sorry. It's the way we work in Special Projects," he said....
(8) Just because vampires don't eat doesn't mean that some of them don't obsess about their figures. Gloriana St. Clair, the center of Gerry Bartlett's Real Vampires series, was bloating when she was turned in 1604, so she can't blame Twinkies for her physique. But she does worry about the affect junk food has on her telepathic dog, Valdez. From Real Vampires Have Curves:
He sniffed his way to a bush and took care of his business. "Next gas stop, I want a bag of Cheetos and some Twinkies."

Typical. "I should get you a can of Alpo. That other stuff's bad for you." Can you believe this dog? I think he eats those things to torment me. I haven't had a bite, of food, that is, since 1604 and while I always liked my meals back then, I would have killed for something that smelled like a Cheeto.

"I ain't no ordinary dog. I'm a Labradoodle special and I got needs. You have any idea what they put in canned dog food?"

"Cheetos and Twinkies aren't--"

"So stop for a Big Mac and fries. And you owe me...."
Valdez is actually a shape-shifter and, as the series progresses, turns into an intense Latin lover type.  The Twinkies haven't hurt his physique: Bartlett imagines him portrayed in an adaptation by the very fit Hugh Jackman.

(9) "Bunny, for all his appearance of amiable, callous stability, was actually a wildly erratic character," writes Donna Tartt of one of the students at the elite liberal arts college in her The Secret History.
To the casual observer, I suppose, he seemed pretty much his jolly old self- slapping people on the back, eating Twinkies and Ho Hos in the reading room of the library and dropping crumbs all down in the bindings of his Greek books. But behind that bluff facade some distinct and rather ominous changes were taking place, changes of which I was already dimly aware but which made themselves more evident as time went on.
Is Tartt making an ironical nod at the so-called Twinkie defense, since we know from the outset of the novel that Bunny is the victim of the murder that propels the story?

(10) The Twinkie as sociocultural marker got a boost in 2002 when CNN and the New York Times let the world know that rustics down in Texas were deep-frying the snack. In Debbie Macomber's The Shop on Blossom Street (2010), the affluent Jacqueline Donovan tries to imagine why she wasn't invited to her son's wedding to his bride with the double-barreled first name:
Paul must've known she wouldn't be pleased - and he must have realized that his in-laws would be an embarrassment. She could only imagine the kind of wedding Tammie Lee's family would hold. The reception dinner would probably consist of collard greens and grits, with deep-fried Hostess Twinkies instead of wedding cake.

--Marshal Zeringue ©