Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Last Night at the Lobster

Anyone ever having had a job suddenly yanked from under him by a questionable corporate decision will understand what Manny DeLeon is going through. Manny is one fine employee, a company man through and through who takes great pride in what he does for a living despite the low pay, the long hours, and the constant pressure from the home office to do more with less. Last Night at the Lobster may be Manny’s particular story but there are thousands and thousands of “Mannys” out there and Stewart O’Nan’s novel is a tribute to all of them.

Here it is, just five days before Christmas, and Manny is hoping for the perfect last day to close down the Red Lobster restaurant he’s managed for so long. He wants to go out with a bang: with a high customer count for the day, a heartfelt farewell to all his regulars and his crew, and a feeling of accomplishment despite the message of “failure” that the bean counters have tossed his way.

What he gets instead is a typical New England blizzard that requires him to crank up the old snow blower and hit the parking lot in an attempt to clear spaces for customers who are probably too smart to venture out into the storm for a meal anyway. But Manny, ever the optimist, never stops “managing” his restaurant and the skeleton crew that shows up more out of personal loyalty to him than from any sense of obligation to the company on this last day.

This slim novel at times reads like a Red Lobster manual on how to close down one of its stores at the end of the day as Manny continues to follow company procedures and policies right up to the second he turns the lock on the door and heads to his car (whose windshield, he already knows, has been smashed by a disgruntled employee). But along the way, we meet, and get to know, the crew that showed up to man the restaurant during its last hours, some of whom Manny was surprised to see show up at all. Among them are Eddie, the handicapped dishwasher; Ty, the chief cook; Roz, an old-timer with the company who is actually vested in the company’s pension plan; and Jacquie, another waitress and former girlfriend of Manny’s.

Last Night at the Lobster is about one man trying to make it through a painful day with his honor and self-respect in tact and O’Nan offers little in the way of drama other than Manny’s wishful thinking about his relationship with Jacquie, a yearning he still feels despite the fact that his new girlfriend is pregnant and Jacquie herself has moved on to a new relationship. Manny does manage to handle a few obliviously unreasonable customers, but one gets the feeling that they are just part of any day for him, something he can now do well with his eyes closed.

There are too few novels written about work, and almost none of them are about work in the service industry. O’Nan’s novel may be short, at only 146 pages, but he has packed enough into it that I doubt that anyone who reads it will ever be able to eat out again without a heightened awareness of those who make their meal possible.

Rated at: 3.5

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