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Last Night at the Lobster


Last Night at the Lobster

The closest most of us ever have come to the territory acutely observed in Stewart O'Nan's latest book are those occasions when we have had the misfortune to land a table near a restaurant kitchen. With each swing of the door we inhale the damp cooking smells and hear the clatter of dishes, and we're grateful that we don't have to work in that environment. Perhaps we'll regard those experiences in a somewhat different way after reading O'Nan's moving novel, LAST NIGHT AT THE LOBSTER.

Inspired by a news item about a group of churchgoers surprised one Sunday morning by the unannounced closing of a restaurant in Torrington, Connecticut, O'Nan's slim novel (146 pages) recounts the snowy final hours of a Red Lobster perched at the edge of a forlorn strip mall in New Britain, Connecticut. Christmas is only five days away, but the decision of corporate management in Florida to close the restaurant (shades of Ebenezer Scrooge) is about to become a reality. Manager Manny DeLeon and a few handpicked employees have been reassigned to a nearby Olive Garden owned by the same chain. But Manny is determined to make this final shift one that will give form to the pride he holds in his nondescript job: "He's been counting on this one last shift for so long, as if it might hold some final answer. It can't, he knows, yet he feels threatened by the idea of losing his last chance."

The restaurant's final day mixes the mundane --- an unruly child who vomits on the restaurant carpet, a large office party celebrating the retirement of one of their number and the daily lunchtime visit of Manny's high school wrestling coach --- with the bizarre --- the mysterious slashing of the coats of Manny and one of his co-workers combined with holes punched in the windshields of their cars, and the appearance of a busload of Chinese travelers sickened by a meal at another restaurant, who stop at the Red Lobster because of its ample restroom facilities.

In prose as straightforward as the characters who populate the novel, O'Nan captures credibly and with precision the countless details involved in performing the often mind-numbing labor that makes a restaurant run. And Manny, from whose point of view the story is told, is a sympathetic figure whose determination to do his job with attentiveness and care doesn't prevent him from having his feelings stirred by the sight of his restaurant through the worsening snowstorm, noting "the glow from the windows and the candlelit faces of people eating inside all suddenly, surprisingly beautiful to him."

Through all these events, Manny struggles with his emotions as he works with his waitress ex-girlfriend Jacquie for the final time, while trudging on his break to the Zales jewelry store at the mall to select a Christmas gift for his current girlfriend, Deena. Jacquie had decided to terminate the pregnancy that was the product of their relationship, while Deena now is pregnant herself. Manny's longings reach beyond his lingering regret over the end of his relationship with Jacquie. He's hoping that the restaurant's last customers --- an elderly couple fighting the blizzard on their way home to Springfield, Massachusetts --- will tell him "this is the best meal they've ever eaten, and the most memorable; wants the man to shake his hand and tell him he's done a great job under tough circumstances."

In LAST NIGHT AT THE LOBSTER Stewart O'Nan has crafted an elegant and unsentimental miniature of the workaday world. Thankfully, he passes on the opportunity to have his characters moralize about the life of the working class Americans in an age of downsizing so affectingly captured in this brief tale. Instead, he leaves it to his protagonist, Manny, still dreaming of a miracle to salvage this final day, to offer the benediction: "Maybe it was just everyone showing up, and everyone still being here. It's possible he's missing the whole thing."

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg([email protected]) on December 30, 2010

Last Night at the Lobster
by Stewart O'Nan

  • Publication Date: November 1, 2007
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 160 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult
  • ISBN-10: 0670018279
  • ISBN-13: 9780670018277