Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan
I read one of Stewart O’Nan’s early novels, The Speed Queen, when it came out in paperback in the late 1990s. I remember enjoying it, but I didn’t come across him again until I picked this novel up somewhere – I’m going to have to read more of his books now though, for I loved this slim novel.
The Red Lobster is a chain restaurant in the corner of a run-down mall in New England. It’s four days until Christmas, there’s a blizzard on the way and manager Manny DeLeon has a difficult job to do. Unfortunately, the restaurant hasn’t been making enough money, and the owners are shutting it down. Tonight is the last shift.
Two months ago Manny had forty-four people working for him, twenty of them full time. Tonight when he locks the doors, all but five will lose their jobs, and one of those five – unfairly, he thinks, since he was their leader – will be himself. Monday the survivors will start at the Olive Garden in Bristol, another fifteen minutes’ commute, but better than what’s waiting for Jacquie and the rest of them. He’s spent the last few weeks polishing letters of recommendation, trying to come up with nice things to say – not hard in some cases, nearly impossible in others.
As the novel begins, Manny is arriving to unlock for that last shift and we see the day’s work through his eyes. He’s determined to do a good job and goes about setting things up waiting for the others to arrive. Eddie is first, on time despite the fact that he walks with canes and grimaces with every step. Most of the others will show up eventually, including Manny’s ex, Jacquie, and even Leron. They all get on with the lunchtime prep.
“Here we go,” Manny says, to himself as much as anyone, and for the very last time he flips the breaker for the neon by the highway, then slides the tab of the plastic CLOSED sign on the front door to the right to let the whole world know they’re open for business.
The first customer is their regular, Mr Kashnynski, who was formerly Manny’s coach at school. He comes every day for the senior special. The restaurant gradually fills up a little – they’re all kept busy; a child vomits onto the carpet; pre-booked party hasa good time. O’Nan gives us all the detail of how the restaurant works, the internal politics between the different waitresses and their tables, keeping track of stock, making sure the walkway is gritted – it’s a fascinating insight into their hard work. All the while, Manny quietly worries: what will happen to them all, what should he get his pregnant girlfriend Deena for Christmas – everyday concerns, but as we get to know them all through this last day, they take on deeper significance.
This is beautiful writing, unsentimental yet touching, from the author who I read is known as the ‘Bard of the Working Class’. The protagonists all have mundane lives, and do the same thing day in, day out – yet in O’Nan’s hands seen through Manny’s eyes, their lives aren’t so mundane after all. (9.5/10)
I find I own his 2015 novel West of Sunset already. It’s a very different proposition being about the last days of F.Scott Fitzgerald – however, he was on his uppers by then – so perhaps there will be more similarities than initially expected. O’Nan is a great (re)discovery for me.
Source: Own copy.
Stewart O’Nan, Last Night at the Lobster, 2007. Allen & Unwin paperback, 160 pages.