Wastin’ away in Lobsteritaville, looking for his lost shaker of salt
Last Night at the Lobster. By Stewart O’Nan. Viking, 146 pp., $19.95.
By Janice Harayda
This novel is the American On Chesil Beach without the bad sex to provide occasional comic relief.
Like Ian McEwan’s bestseller, Last Night at the Lobster is a slender, earnest account of the transforming effects of a single evening on a small number of characters. Both novels come from well-respected authors who have set all or most of the action in a commercial establishment in a town near the ocean – a resort hotel in Britain in McEwan’s case and a Red Lobster in New Britain in O’Nan’s. And both have plots that involve meals, missed romantic cues and diligent research substituting for real character development.
Did you know that restaurant managers close up their restaurants from back to front? “For security reasons, managers can’t leave out the back, or alone,” O’Nan writes.
These similarities between the books can only be coincidental, given that Last Night at the Lobster came out just two months after On Chesil Beach. And yet, both are so lightweight that you have to wonder if their authors are getting tired, or if they think we are.
In O’Nan’s novel, an underperforming Red Lobster is being shut down by Darden Restaurants five days before Christmas. Manny DeLeon, the decent and hard-working 35-year-old manager, doesn’t quite understand why this is happening, though he knows his numbers haven’t met expectations: “He’s done everything they asked, yet there must have been something more, something he missed.”
Still, on his last night at the Lobster, Manny is as diligent as ever, though distracted by the presence of an ex-girlfriend with whom he will no longer be working and by the pregnancy of the woman he now sees. He hopes to put up strong final numbers – as much for himself as for Darden – but a winter storm dooms that hope. And one by one, he sees his goals for the day evaporate.
There is a certain poignancy to his plight – the unspoken suggestion that he’ll turn into Willy Loman in a decade or two – but it’s mostly unexploited. O’Nan shows Manny’s Hispanic heritage by having him refer frequently his recently deceased abuelita, with whom he lived. But nothing else about him is clearly Latino, so these comments are more distracting than edifying.
Big Night, one of the great films of the 1990s, made much more of a similar premise in its tragicomic depiction of the last night of a restaurant run by two Italian-immigrant brothers. That movie bursts with the love and joy that the men poured into their failing venture, which invests it with a depth of feeling Last Night at the Lobster never achieves. Like Arthur Miller in Death of a Salesman, O’Nan seems to be trying to tell us that “attention must be paid” to men like his hero. He’s right. But it’s hard to feel much sorrow for Manny’s plight when his tragedy – as the novel depicts it – is that Darden Restaurants is transferring him to a nearby Olive Garden.
Best line: “Roz swings in shouldering a tray of lipstick-smudged wine glasses and peeled beer bottles and gives him a sympathetic frown commonly reserved for toddlers, pouting with her bottom lip out. ‘Uh-oh. Looks like there’s trouble in paradise.’
This is paradise?’ Manny asks.
‘Could be if you play your cards right.’”
Worst line: “Like any longtime acquaintances, there’s a comfortable slackness to their conversations.”
Published: November 2007 www.stewart-onan.com
Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. She wrote The Accidental Bride (St. Martins, 1999), a comedy of Midwestern manners, and Manhattan on the Rocks (Sourcebooks, 2004), a comedy of New York manners.