Quiet desperation played out at a Red Lobster restaurant’s final closing.
Title: Last Night at the Lobster
Author: Stewart O’Nan
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publication date: 11/01/2007
Characters: Manny DeLeon, working class waitresses, dishwashers, chef etc; Roz, Jacquie, Rich, Leron, Eddie, Nicolette, Dom
Amazon Rank: #566,121 in Kindle Store
#1,936 in Humorous Literary Fiction
#3,176 in Contemporary American Fiction
#4,250 in Holiday Fiction (Kindle Store)
Ray’s rating: 5 stars
Last Night at the Lobster looks at life as we, the common folk, live it. In the annoyances, complications, disappointments, and subtle joys of working a chain restaurant on the day of its last closing, Stewart O’Nan considers one man’s great expectations.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT (SURFACE)
Manny DeLeon has been manager of a Red Lobster for many years. Corporate has decided to close the restaurant because of alleged poor performance. On that final day, Manny is dutifully preparing for it, though with a skeleton staff and while wrestling with the conflicting issues of his love life.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT (SUBSURFACE)
So much of this story is identifiable by working class people, which is basically everyone who has to work a job. The situation for all of us is expressed early in the story:
“I still can’t believe this shit,” Ty says. “This is the kind of shit the navy used to pull on us. I can’t believe I gotta put up with it in real life.”
“You don’t have to,” Manny says.
“I do if I want to keep eating.”
Survival is our primary motivation for working and it usually trumps any sense of career. Mr. O’Nan shows this in the characters of Rich and Leron, who mechanically do their jobs with no evident consideration of job satisfaction.
But Rich and Leron are not primary characters. Those that are, tend to have more “skin in the game.” They want job satisfaction and justice. We see this in Manny, who is the protagonist and holds the point-of-view through the story.
Manny is committed to “doing the right thing.” He is not obsessive about minutiae, he simply believes in some kind of universal justice that will reward him if he follows the rules. So he follows traffic rules when there’s no traffic and keeps the walkway clear of snow when there are no customers.
Manny is strong in his belief in moral reward and holds onto them even in the face of evidence to the contrary. This gets him into sticky situations, like having a pregnant girlfriend who wants him in her life, and desiring an ex-girlfriend who doesn’t.
Confusion results from Manny’s moral code. He doesn’t understand why his “soulmate” won’t have him, any more than he understands why Corporate is closing his restaurant. His struggle to understand and make sense of things, leads to insight that is expressed at several points:
And then, looking around at everyone pitching in, he thinks that’s okay. This is better, all of them here together.
Parts of Manny’s moral struggle read like scenes from A Christmas Carol (and this story is set at Christmas-time). Yet it isn’t clear how much Manny really understands the insight he has found. In that regard, he seems denser than Scrooge. But maybe, like us, he tends to be careful about what things he puts much thought into (lest his insight becomes that of Ivan Ilych).
MY LIKES AND DISLIKES
Mr. O’Nan has done a great job here in portraying, realistically, working class characters and their working-life experience. This could be a recipe for “boring,” but Mr. O’Nan makes it compelling. The narrative describing Manny’s struggles through the day with inconsiderate customers, low inventory, and a snowstorm keep the action moving as much as any thriller (and more believable).
Through it all, Manny wrestles with his gnawing personal problems even as he does his best to do his job. Most everyone experiences this at some point and is a major identifiable aspect for me.
Though Manny is far-and-away the book’s protagonist and point-of-view, the secondary characters are nuanced and believable. Manny’s realistic interactions with them are a large reason for this. Hence, Mr. O’Nan portrays multi-dimensional characters in a small space (the book is only 162 pages).
I really love that Mr. O’Nan filled his story with sympathetic characters, even though there are varying degrees of “likability” among them.
I don’t find many cons in this story. What few there are will, I think, depend on the reader. It is a character-driven story even though there is a followable main plot. It is not fast-paced, high stakes, action as is typical in current TV dramas. The most of the story’s movements are internal to the characters and requires some thoughtful analysis. If you don’t care for such thoughtfulness, you may be disappointed with this book.
This is a short novel (or a long short story) and so there is little time to spend on secondary characters. Just enough info is given to simulate Manny being surrounded with actual people. This is not a problem unless you just have to have extensive subplots.
This is not a “hero’s journey” type of story. So resolutions for Manny’s problems are far more nuanced than what you see on TV. The resolutions are there, but they are subtle and require some thought to truly see.
I LOVE THIS STORY
This little novel is a “slice of life” story in its feel for location, time, and characters. It is storytelling by a thoughtful artist with the “life’s struggle” of regular people as his modeling clay. As such, it is realistic in situations and character motivations. What it is not, is boring or depressing. That is because the author touches on themes common to most of us. It is easy to identify with the protagonist and the secondary characters.
Last Night at the Lobster is such a breath of fresh air compared to the current trite dramas on TV and movies that feature exaggerated and stereotyped characters. It is storytelling the way real writers do it, and I add it to my list of favorite stories with my highest recommendation.