The men behind the fish beside the salad bar.
Feb 4, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 20 • By STEFAN BECK
Last Night at the Lobster
Menial work has a way of invading one's consciousness. I passed a summer on the overnight shift at Super Stop & Shop; by July I dreamt only of product mascots. One day it was the Land O'Lakes squaw and the Sun Maid; another, Betty Crocker in nothing but oven mitts and a lacy apron. When the produce guy railed against interracial dating, I had Chef Boyardee and Aunt Jemima consommé. Since gay marriage never came up, I was at least spared the fervent moppings of the Brawny Man and Mr. Clean.
Stewart O'Nan's eleventh novel, Last Night at the Lobster, faithfully captures this and other aspects of the dirty job done dirt cheap. It describes the last shift of a Red Lobster in New Britain, Connecticut, which "corporate" has decided to shut down for not "meeting expectations." I spent a year in Hardware City one winter and can report that O'Nan gets his setting note perfect, from its popular epithet ("hard-hittin' New Britain") to its large Polish community ("New Britski") to such crucial details as the "Citgo next to Daddy's Junky Music" and the Lobster's "adopt-a-highway mile on 9."
Then there are its citizens, downcast but steadfast. Our Sisyphean hero, Manny DeLeon, is the hardworking Puerto Rican manager of the restaurant, rolling his rock lobster up the hill each day only to have it crash down on him again. Even his name is just right, as it recalls that old chestnut, "I've got a friend so lazy he thinks Manual Labor is a Hispanic guy." All the same, the plight of Manny and his doomed coworkers isn't the least bit comical.
That doesn't mean it's boring, though. O'Nan's prose, unlike his protagonist, is anything but workmanlike. Some writers rely on the finery of simile and metaphor, but O'Nan's use of the humble verb outdoes many of his more celebrated peers. At one point, Manny "chops on the lights and waits as the panels hopscotch across the kitchen ceiling." And if that sentence doesn't give you a shock of recognition, you're blessed never to have toiled beneath fluorescent lighting.
Yet language, however artfully it's used, accounts for but a small part of the pleasure to be had here. I mention verbs because it's watching people do things that makes Last Night at the Lobster such a joy. On the first page, when Manny's Buick Regal "signals for no one's benefit" in a snowbound parking lot, we know we're in the hands of a writer who shows more than he tells--and who shows action more than he tells about introspection. Want to watch someone finesse a Frialator or a stubborn snowblower, or dice cabbage for cole slaw? If you think the answer is no, O'Nan has a surprise for you: His descriptions of ordinary restaurant work border on the hypnotic.
What that parking-lot snapshot shows us is that Manny is a serious, scrupulous fellow, particularly where his job is concerned. It may be his last day--soon he'll assume a more degrading position at Olive Garden--but even so, he reflexively contemplates taking a putty knife to some chewing gum on the underside of a table, and stoically endures the rudeness of a woman with a badly behaved, then gluttonous, then violently ill, child. This is one of the book's funniest and most painful scenes. It takes the stuff of bad sight gags and transforms it into a portentous trial by ordeal:
The saintly patience of people like Manny is too often taken for granted in real life, but Last Night at the Lobster isn't propaganda for the Service and Food Workers Union. It's not about appreciating the "little guy," that most hideous of faux-populist slurs. I, for one, love to learn the ins and outs of a job, preferably one I don't have to do myself, and O'Nan manages to do for chain restaurants what Richard Ford did for real estate in The Lay of the Land. Frankly, though, neither book would be more than a set of operating instructions were it not for the emotional struggles going on behind the scenes--that is, behind the glad-handing and the free Sprite refills.