The men behind the fish beside the salad bar.
Feb 4, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 20 • By STEFAN BECK
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.