LAST NIGHT AT THE LOBSTER
By Stewart O’Nan
Viking, 146 pages, $19.95
The shrimp at the Red Lobster in New Britain, Conn., may or may not arrive frozen—someone will have to check with the chef—but in his new novel, a look at the restaurant’s last day in business before it shuts down permanently, Stewart O’Nan invites his readers to taste for themselves.
Manny DeLeon, the restaurant’s manager for more than 10 years, is being reassigned to a new position at the Olive Garden in Bristol—but before he trades in lobbers for linguine, he has a few more fish to fry.
Lighting a joint before opening the restaurant—“It’s too early and he’s too old to be getting stoned,” the narrator tells us—Manny has plenty of reasons to make sure that the Cheddar Bay Biscuits aren’t the only ones getting toasted. In addition to being left hanging by corporate (who’ll take the lobsters left in the tank; will the salt and pepper shakers be counted?), Manny has an unreliable staff and a blizzard to contend with. “He’s been counting on this one last shift for so long, as if it might hold some final answer,” we learn. “It can’t, he knows, yet he feels threatened by the idea of losing his last chance.”
And what a chance it is! The day’s staff, at least those who bother to show up, is a battle-torn crew including Roz, a “lifer, the only one fully vested in [a] retirement plan,” waiting tables, a tag team of criminals in the kitchen, and Jacquie, Manny’s ex-girlfriend, who, unlike the Marlin pinned to the lobby wall, was the one that got away. Because the company has allowed him to take only five of his employees with him to the Olive Garden, Manny has strained relations with his staff; it’s not long before their numbers start to dwindle.
As Winter Storm Adrian coats Connecticut, and customers are few and far between, tensions in the restaurant run high. A party of 14, a going-away lunch held by office drones who Manny deems exotic, and a sick-spewing toddler are some of the day’s only paying customers; a bus full of tourists arrives, but they’re just looking for restrooms after a bad batch of mussels elsewhere.
A lesser author would find himself swimming with sharks here. It would be too easy to take a maudlin glance at the characters—subbing Red Lobster for Janeane Garofalo’s quarter-life-crisis job at the Gap in Reality Bites. But the reader is never asked to pity Manny, not when he’s repeatedly soaked with snow, not when Jacquie returns an engagement ring. Manny’s got his pride—“he’s always loved the perfection of a clean mirror, the visible progress of mopping.” These characters are sturdy and nuanced.
Once the last vat of chowder is sloshed down the drain, there’s more to take away from this book than just a peek at banal suburban life behind an apron. Stewart O’Nan looks at life and loss with a steady gaze; his Lobster is too good to toss back.
Adam Rathe is associate editor of the arts and entertainment section of The Brooklyn Paper.