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.