Sometimes a book speaks to me for no reason that is obvious at the start. Wandering around my local Books-a-Million earlier this year, Stewart O’Nan’s Last Night at the Lobster — a veritable slip of a novel — begged to be taken home.
I can’t resist the siren call of a book.
Plunging into O’Nan’s short work, we meet the cast of a doomed Red Lobster in Connecticut one snowy night just days before Christmas: Manny DeLeon, the humble manager who can’t forget the love affair he shared with a server before life collapsed and imploded; Jacquie, the object of his devotion; and a variety of cooks, servers and wayward staff who arrive to collect their final paycheck after service as the Lobster closes for good.
It’s a freezing-cold and dangerous night, the sidewalks covered in ice with more on the way. As the customers dwindle, Manny wrestles with letting everyone go home early — they’re shutting down tonight, anyway — and wanting to hold fast to the waning hours he’ll share with his assorted crew before they part forever. Some of this may have something to do with Jacquie, yes, because Manny and others will soon report to a new restaurant . . . but she won’t join them. But it’s more than that, too.
The beauty of O’Nan’s prose and this delicate work is the together-in-the-trenches mentality it evokes. Though I’ve never worked at a restaurant, I worked for years in retail and can easily recall those fighting-the-fight-together feelings of workers versus the rabid hordes of customers that erupted at the holidays. It might seem silly from the outside, but anyone who has stood at a register for eight hours with an endless line of impatient customers will view their colleagues as brothers-in-arms. I could easily see my former coworkers in Roz, Nicolette and Fredo, but no customer service background is necessary to feel dropped into the tundra O’Nan creates — both literal and metaphorical.
This was my first experience with O’Nan, heralded as “the bard of the working class,” but I don’t think it will be my last. Though I couldn’t call this story uplifting, there was something beautifully fractured and tragic about it. As Manny wonders what will become of the Lobster’s outdated decor and the building he meticulously cleaned for all these years, I felt the ache of time marching forward and eventually altering everything we know.
It has nothing to do with the apocalypse, of course, but Last Night At the Lobster still had that “end of the world as we know it” feel — which worked incredibly well. Every sensation, issue and interaction was for the last time, which added extra weight. Manny himself is a sensitive soul, still grieving the loss of a beloved family member and dealing with an unexpected pregnancy, and he embodies the realization that we don’t know anyone else’s story until they share it with us themselves.
At 160 pages, this is a book that can easily be devoured on a Sunday afternoon — and was one I didn’t want to set down. Though the overall mood can only be described as reflective and melancholy, it didn’t bring me down — and I’m now hungry for more of O’Nan’s prose. Anyone read The Odds? It’s next on my wishlist.
4 out of 5!