A few months ago, I wrote about a book called Last Night at the Lobster, by Stewart O’Nan. I just finished it. It’s a short, dense book about the snowy last evening of a Red Lobster restaurant in New Britain, CT, a restaurant whose corporate owners have deemed it worthy of closing due to low revenues.
The story follows Manny, the manager of the restaurant, as he sets about trying to make “the Lobster”‘s last night if not profitable, then at least dignified. Yet he’s short-staffed, the mall where the restaurant is located is being blanketed by a blizzard, and Manny has to deal with such challenges as a disgruntled employee throwing a rock through his windshield and a liquor-poaching bartender.
This is a compelling book. O’Nan covers in painstaking detail the process of running a middlebrow suburban chain restaurant, yet does so with an honesty and dignity (that word again) that one rarely comes across in “literary fiction”. The Washington Post put it well: “Full of regret and gentle humor, Last Night at the Lobster serves up the kind of delicate sadness that too often gets ruined by the slimy superiority that masquerades as sympathy for working-class people.”
I also read Then We Came To The End recently. In some ways, these books are similar: both explore the lives of doomed twenty-first century rank employees with insecure positions in downsizing industries. I liked Lobster much better, though. Its straightforward, spare prose transports the reader into the lives of these people, this restaurant, with an intimacy that feels welcoming rather than voyeuristic or mocking. When a busload of senior citizens appears late into the dinner hour, yet turns out only to need to use the restaurant’s restrooms, I shared Manny’s acute disappointment without feeling sorry for him.
The minor characters are much less sharply drawn than Manny, even Jacqui, the waitress with whom he had an affair months before. Yet the tragedy of their relationship and his stubborn, unfailing hope that she might change her mind, might accompany him to a neighboring Olive Garden where he’s taken an assistant manager job, are heartbreaking.
This book covers about fourteen hours – from Manny’s opening joint before opening the restaurant to his final flip of the lights at midnight. These characters are not transformed or even particularly redeemed by the end. But Manny in particular will linger with me long after I’ve finished this book, nor will I ever view a chain restaurant quite the same. In my opinion, O’Nan has made a significant contribution to the collection of books chronicling the modern American worker.