Sunday, March 30, 2008

Last Night at the Lobster

Review of Stewart O’Nan’s Last Night at the Lobster, from the Toronto Star in December 2007.

I suspect many people will take a pass on Stewart O’Nan’s new book for the subject matter alone, which is about as prosaic and downbeat as you can get. Last Night at the Lobster is a slim novel that recounts a day in the life of a Connecticut Red Lobster outlet, from the perspective of Manny, the manager. The last day in its life, actually – the branch is about to close in a corporate downsizing move.

Readers who avoid this one will be missing out, though. True, O’Nan’s book is sombre in mood, unleavened by the comic hijinks that we’ve come to expect from workplace tales, and much of the narrative is built on the mundane details of restaurant work. But Last Night is surprisingly affecting and charming: O’Nan takes his milieu seriously and treats his characters with compassion.

On reading O’Nan’s first novel, Snow Angels, many years ago, I was impressed by how well he captured his working-class characters without slipping into the “I sing of the common man” tone sometimes found in, say, Russell Banks. In the early pages of Last Night at the Lobster, I wondered if that balance had tilted. The book is set at the height of the Christmas season, in what seems like an open bid for pathos, and it’s dedicated partly to “everyone who works the shifts nobody wants.” Obviously, O’Nan is keenly aware that while chain restaurants and retailers are unavoidable fixtures of North American public life, they rarely get written about in serious fiction. But a writer on a mission doesn’t always bode well.

I needn’t have worried. O’Nan does openly court our sympathies, and he sounds several earnest notes about corporate indifference: “The whole place may be disposable, and everyone in it,” thinks Manny early on, “but you can always find a use for a rubber band.” (Red Lobster’s parent company, Darden Restaurants, is transferring Manny and four other staffers to a nearby Olive Garden; everyone else at the Lobster is being pink-slipped.) But while the premise has sentimental undertones, O’Nan doesn’t overplay them – instead, he focuses squarely on the responsibilities and worries and minor crises that make up Manny’s last day at the helm of the branch.

That day is complicated on several counts. Several employees don’t bother to show, and some of the ones who do are surly. A blizzard worsens throughout the day. And Manny is distracted personally, too: while he has a pregnant girlfriend who’s waiting for some kind of commitment, he’s still tormented by a recently ended affair with a Red Lobster waitress, Jacquie, who’s not going to Olive Garden and who is working at the Lobster on this last day.

Over the course of the novel, O’Nan sketches several scenarios that will be familiar to anyone who’s worked in a restaurant: the daily regular who’s there when the doors open to order his usual; the huge party that arrives without warning in the middle of the lunch rush; the neglectful parent who blames her child’s bratty behaviour on the staff. Having put in several years at a chain pizzeria myself, I can testify that O’Nan also shows a strong grasp of the casual bickering and camaraderie that employees share. He even throws in another staple of restaurant life, the late-night bull session.

Mostly though, he focuses on the work itself. Last Night is full of patient, deliberate descriptions of Manny and his co-workers carrying out their various duties, from clearing the ice in the parking lot to heating up the deep fryers to cleaning the washrooms. Although one of the book’s regular refrains is “as always, Manny tries to lead by example,” O’Nan manages to stop short of idealizing his protagonist. The messy affair with Jacquie is an obvious humanizing strategy, but it works, helping to create a measured portrait of a decent, confused man.

It’s not lost on the reader, of course, that Manny’s decency is unremarked upon and unrewarded. He’s undoubtedly too loyal to his work: as he admits to himself, “he can’t stand a job left undone,” and it’s downright startling when he idly muses, midway through the novel, about a possible future that doesn’t include Darden Restaurants. Last Night at the Lobster is a small, quiet story with no epiphany or resolution, and Manny’s absorption in his unglamorous everyday tasks could be seen as futility. But the novel dares to suggest that even drudgerous work can still offer us enough purpose to get through another day, and sometimes that’s important enough.

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