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Seafood Chatter

The men behind the fish beside the salad bar.

Feb 4, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 20 • By STEFAN BECK
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Last Night at the Lobster

by Stewart O'Nan

Viking, 160 pp., $19.95

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:

Now they've stopped. One of the grandmothers wants to offer the kid something from her purse--a piece of hard candy, just what he needs. .  .  .

The mother's politely declining--no, thank you, we couldn't possibly--when the kid puts a hand to his mouth as if to cover a burp, bends at the waist and gushes all over her boots. A big butterscotch-colored flood, with chunks. And he's not done. The gagging is audible over Kenny Loggins, making one side of the retirement party turn in their chairs. .  .  .

"Can someone please get him a glass of water?" the mother shouts, stuck in the puddle, since borrowing one of the grandmothers' is out of the question.

Manny has a pitcher right there at the station, and a spare goblet.

"Thank you," the mother scolds him.

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.

I don't want to dam up the stream of consciousness and then throw a party for the WPA. Stewart O'Nan's achievement is to have constructed a novel of consciousness on an unfamiliar foundation, so that the reader can see feelings filtered through the unnatural restraint and deference that come along with the food service industry. (The obvious comparison is with the butler narrator of Kazuo Ishiguro's impeccable The Remains of the Day.) What Manny's thinking about isn't popcorn shrimp and tilapia; it's really a failed romance with Jacquie, a coworker he'll never see again after this shift. And he's still got another woman at home, and a fancy Christmas present to buy for her. But which girl will he end up giving it to?

There's no supporting cast in Last Night at the Lobster. Every character is credible--such as a kitchen worker who slashes Manny's leather jacket before vanishing into the night. Manny thinks this vandalism was intended for a coworker's similar coat, only to find that both have received the same treatment. We never know what our coworkers, or anyone else, honestly think of us.

The only disappointing fact about O'Nan is that he can tell the New York Times, while being interviewed in an actual Red Lobster, "It's America. This is where folks live. There is nothing ironic or silly about it."

Ugh. Folks? These sound suspiciously like the words of a connoisseur, someone who doesn't want anyone else to feel at home in the same way he does, or thinks he does, or wants us to think he does. It seems that work, not drink, is the curse of the working class, while a guilty desire for empathy is the curse of everybody else--writers especially. But as curses go, you could do a lot worse. After all, those popcorn shrimp sure don't bread themselves.

Stefan Beck writes on fiction for the New York Sun, the New Criterion, and elsewhere.