Skip to main content

Last Night at the Lobster

Review

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 (mwn52@aol.com) 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