Title: Last Night at the Lobster
Author: Stewart O’Nan
Type of Book: Fiction
Why Did I Read This Book: I read O’Nan’s The Night Country twice and loved it immoderately. When I saw Last Night at the Lobster on clearance, I snapped it up. I prefer not to buy remaindered books as I like for authors to make money off the books I buy, but I was a very impecunious reader for about a year. But given the blue-collar atmosphere described in the book, I’m sure O’Nan would understand.
Availability: Published by Viking, you can get a copy here:
Comments: This book was the perfect palate cleanser after reading Mary Gordon’s Pearl. Word economy, action, people behaving in a manner that made sense… I discuss a comparison between the two IN A COMPLETELY UNRELATED REVIEW over at I Read Odd Books, making it clear that perhaps I identify more with working class characters. This book was the perfect hot dog and beer after the salty steak and red wine offered in Pearl.
Last Night at the Lobster is a day in the life of Manny DeLeon, the manager of a Red Lobster that is being closed down days before Christmas. Manny’s life is that of a hard-working man, a man who does a very difficult job (god bless and overtip every person who ever waits in you in a restaurant) and wants to do it well. He is a man who hates to see others lose their job when the restaurant closes, even employees whose work ethic may not merit such loyalty.
But Manny is not a caricature of a virtuous Working Everyman, for despite his work ethic, loyalty and his sense of pride in a job well-done, Manny is all too human. He has a pregnant girlfriend but also carried on an affair with a coworker, Jacquie, a girl who also had a boyfriend. When the Red Lobster closed, Manny was offered an assistant manager job at an Olive Garden and can take five employees with him and wanted to take Jacquie. But Jacquie has a better sense of reality – Manny has a pregnant girlfriend and she can see that their love affair has no future. But Manny pines for her anyway, service-sector star-crossed lovers that they are.
It is very easy to get lost in a book of fantasy, or a book about the rich. Intoxicating other worlds have fueled certain genres for a long while and Danielle Steel would not be one of the best selling authors of all time if tales of money, sex, and intrigue did not serve as excellent escapism from the daily grind. Even Stephen King, who writes of blue collar people more than most authors, has them often set against a backdrop of horror or intensity that makes you forget that his characters don’t have a key to the executive washroom.
Last Night at the Lobster is also no epic tale of poverty, with no Steinbeckian-overtones to give extra-special nobility to Manny. Manny is just an American guy who works his ass off, whose personal life is messy, who is probably going to marry a woman he doesn’t love because she is carrying his child, and who will never be rich, famous or otherwise renown. So why care about him? Well, for me, it is because the stories of people like Manny so seldom get told outside of Barbara Ehrenreich exposés. I like reading about working class people. So often, people who are not rich in novels, who occupy a sort of underclass like Manny, are criminals or addicts or both. I like reading about people whose lives and work I can relate to so easily but whose stories are not told with sentimentality about the “working man.” Whose stories are important and amazing in their own right without needing the sanctification of people romanticizing what it is like to be young, hardworking and broke.
But if you are not me, if you could care less about the working man who brings you your meals when you eat at chain restaurants, then you should read this book because of the writing. The characterization is spot on and even wrestling with salting the snow seems interesting. As Manny hopes and prays his staff comes in for their last day of work and struggles with a terrible snow storm, the minutia of his day is never boring.
Despite my own verbosity, I am becoming a big fan of those who can tell a story and use word conservation. Manny’s long, complicated, frustrating, emotionally-wrenching day is told in 146 pages (in the hardcover version). In these 146 pages, we learn more than we thought possible about what goes into running a Red Lobster restaurant, or any restaurant for that matter. We learn what it is like to run a restaurant in a snowstorm. We even learn what a drag it can be when the snowblower is an annoying piece of crap. As a Texas native who has never experienced real snow, this book took a lot of the romance out of snow for me, and I don’t resent it one bit.
But as small potatoes as being the manager of a Red Lobster can be, Manny’s lot is a complicated one, and O’Nan tells his story without any Bruce Springsteen sentimentality. Manny is one of millions in this world whose hard work goes either unnoticed or unrewarded. He worked very hard at his Red Lobster location and the store was profitable, but corporate decided to shut it down anyway. Manny struggles with his feelings of betrayal combined with the sense that he must have somehow failed:
Manny’s done his best to lead by example. He’s whitewashed graffiti and pushed the heart-healthy menu and taught his crew that every little bite counts for his customers. He’s done everything they asked, yet there must have been something more, something he missed.
Yet while we the reader like Manny, O’Nan does not let us forget he is flawed, perhaps throwing himself into his job because that is where is true love Jacquie works, and because at work, he is not confronted with the problems he faces in his personal life:
There are exactly four shopping days till Christmas, and he still has no idea what to get Deena. Not something for the baby; they’ll have to buy that stuff anyway. She’s already warned him that she wants something romantic, like the necklace he bought Jacquie for their six-month anniversary, except that’s too expensive, especially with his future so uncertain. Lately she’s been hinting that they should get married – not just for the baby but for them. When she starts in on it, Manny just shuts down, he’s not sure why.
Yikes. You like Manny, but he can’t afford the mother of his unborn child the same jewelry he purchased for the woman he was cheating on her with? Oh, Manny!
But though this is not a sentimental tale, Manny is a sentimental man, and a kind one too. One of his employees, Eddie, suffers from terrible physical disabilities, needing braces on his legs and sticks to hold him up as he walks.
As he heads for the dock, his legs buckle with every step, making him lurch wildly as if he might fall, his canes busy outriggers, saving him again and again. Not that Many notes this anymore, it’s just Eddie walking. Every couple of years Manny has to write an evaluation for the foundation, and each time he writes, “Eddie is the best worker I have.” And while that may be sentimental, and in some ways untrue (he considers Roz the star of the floor and Ty the anchor in the kitchen), it’s no coincidence that today Eddie is the only person from the lunch shift to punch in on time.
Later, Manny realizes that one of the reasons that he selected Eddie for one of the coveted places at the Olive Garden is because he cannot bear the thought of Eddie sitting without anything to do at the sort of nursing/group home for the disabled where he lives.
The whole book is full of examples of Manny trying to do his best by his employees, yet not being particularly surprised when they turn on him, the pressures and temptations of the last day on the job getting to them. When his bartender smuggles out bottles of expensive booze, Manny foils him and everyone who remains gets a nice drink on the house. When a waitress whom he had backed up on the floor when an irrational customer lets her son make a mess and act terribly turns on him – she is not one who gets a place at the Olive Garden – Manny suffers her wrath amicably and with a sense of failure. He knows there is no other way it could have turned out. This is their exchange as she storms out the door:
“Thanks,” he says in the semi-privacy of the vestibule, and not just from habit. She did work for him and he does appreciate it.
“Fuck you,” Nicolette says. “You fired me instead of Crystal – that’s what it comes down to – and do you see Crystal anywhere? No, but here I am like an idiot, so just fuck you, Manny. Thanks,” she mocks him, her final word…
“Good luck,” he says as she pushes into the storm, and gives her a stiff salute of a wave. Watching her go, he thinks it’s wrong that instead of sadness or anger, all he is feels is an indifferent relief. It feels – in this case at least – like he’s admitting defeat.
Manny’s final day is hellish. Waiting on the snowplow, salting the snow, pushing stuck cars out of the snow, trudging to the mall to get Deena’s gift, one employee after another walking off the job, difficult customers, knowing that each act of goodwill he puts forth is more or less wasted as the restaurant is closing. Worst of all, he will not see Jacquie anymore after that last day and his thoughts, when not full of making sure the restrooms are clean and changing light bulbs, are of her.
In the stockroom, where special offer lighthouse glasses are stored, Jacquie searches for the glasses for a customer who wants to buy them all. As Manny helps, he remembers:
She kissed him here a dozen different times, mashed into him against his half-joking protests that they’d get caught. Some of the dustier cans probably witnessed them – the maraschino cherries and baby corn, maybe. It seems wrong that even these perishables have outlasted what he thought was eternal – still thinks, really – but there they are, solid evidence. The glasses too, even though they were supposed to be a limited offer. What isn’t? He needs to remember that with Deena.
But Manny makes it through his day, his cadre of loyal employees by his side. Though it is their last day at the Lobster, it is not his. He must return the next day to give out Olive Garden discount cards to customers who come for the lunch rush, letting them know the restaurant has closed. The finality of the last night at the Lobster really hits him when Jacquie returns the piece of jewelry he bought her. After an awkward exchange wherein the end really hits him, he lets his mind drift to the good times he had with her.
…remembers the two of them in her low bed, motionless and sated after making love, lying there as if asleep. That was the best time, even with the picture of Rodney in his cricket whites smiling down from the dresser. Silently he’d raise himself on one elbow to admire her, crane over and kiss her eyelids. It might seem like an illusion now, but he felt stronger then, smarter, thinner.
“You made me feel lucky,” he says.
In so many novels of the working class, there seems to be a need for redemption. The small man rising against the machine, the worker getting his own back. It’s like the world of the working man needs to have some intense catharsis, rising above, finding the love of a good woman worth more than being with the woman you really love. In such novels, Manny would have burned down the Red Lobster, or done something to make corporate sorry for discounting his hard work. He would have fallen magically in love with Deena, discounting Jacquie as a fling and gratefully driving home to his baby-mama, happy that he came to his senses.
Manny did not need that sort of redemption nor did O’Nan force down our throats this sort of nonsense. Manny needs no explanation and he needs no apologist. He just needs a voice. O’Nan could not have told Manny’s story better – the grind, doing his job well, his loyalties, his misgivings, where he shines and where he falls in the shit. This novel was as absorbing as any I have read in a while, with masterful characterization and an unabashed talent for explaining what work is like while making sure the narrative entertains.
The novel ends with Manny driving home at midnight, wanting fast food but not getting it because he is worried about his weight. Besides, he is tired and doesn’t want to spend the time seeking out the Wendy’s restaurant in the snow, not entirely sure it would be open in the blizzard. Not everyone works as hard as Manny.
It’s late, and he needs to get to bed if he’s going to make it in early tomorrow.
And that is so often how life boils down. We all have to make it in early tomorrow.
I live for bizarro novels, as I make clear at my other site, I Read Odd Books. I love the outre and strange. But simple prose about men I know, people we all know, thrills me as well.
Buy this book. Buy two copies and give one to a friend, especially if that friend has never worked in a job like the ones held at the Red Lobster. Then tip very well the next server who brings you dinner.