Review: Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan

Stewart O’Nan writes with such clarity in Last Night at the Lobster that you can almost smell the seafood gumbo and the Cheddar Bay biscuits.  At 146 pages, this is a spare, minimalist day-in-the-life novella about the lives of the employees at a shabby, downsized Red Lobster restaurant.

The entire story takes place on the last day of business for the New Britain, Connecticut branch of the Darden restaurant chain.  Manny De Leon is the dedicated general manager at The Lobster; he is the picture of corporate loyalty.  The company has decided to close the branch, although he can’t figure out why because his numbers haven’t been that bad.  He takes great pride in “his” store, following company policy to the letter.  

As Manny attempts to stick to the routine and make the best of the last day, the elements are against him.  A blizzard is bearing down, the snow is piling up.  Disgruntled employees come in late or not at all.  Guests are few and far between, although there is some craziness at lunch when a party of 14 comes in without a reservation.  They are understaffed and understocked, and Manny, leading by example as always, must pitch in on the floor and in the kitchen. 

There isn’t a lot of dramatic action, but there is so much emotion.  Manny’s entire adult life has been wrapped up in this job, a job he takes great pride in and can practically do with his eyes shut.  The other employees don’t have the same feelings toward the Lobster as he has; they seem to resent the job, one another, and probably Manny as well. 

Manny spends time snowblowing the sidewalk during the blizzard and looks almost lovingly at the glowing windows of the store through the storm.  For Manny, The Lobster is the haven in the chaos of his life. While ruminating on what to get his pregnant girlfriend Deena for Christmas, he also reminisces about his failed relationship with Jacquie, one of the waitresses.  Manny longs for Jacquie, but she has moved on, and it is much the same with The Lobster.  He is a company man, but the company is indifferent toward him.    

If you’ve ever worked in a chain restaurant during the holidays, or been a victim of corporate downsizing, you will recognize and relate to the staff at The Lobster.  Their minor human triumphs and tragedies are the stuff of every day life in middle America.  This is a powerful little story that will stay with you and one that I would highly recommend.  You will not be able to eat in a Red Lobster or Olive Garden ever again without thinking of Manny and his crew. 

Stewart O’Nan’s latest book, Songs for the Missing, will be out in October 2008, but I’ll be getting an Advanced Readers Copy through Barnes and Noble’s First Look program, so I’ll be writing about it here this summer.