LAST NIGHT AT THE LOBSTER
By Stewart O'Nan
Viking. 146 pp. $19.95
Last Night at the Lobster takes place during 12 hours on Dec. 20, the last day for a Red Lobster restaurant at a depressed shopping mall in New Britain, Conn. Stuart O'Nan's entire novella could probably fit on those large, laminated menu pages that entice us to "Come See What's Fresh Today." There is no plot here beyond the serving schedule from opening, to lunch, to dinner, to closing. It's just another work day in the lives of a few people behind those sad economic headlines you skim in the newspaper.
A memo from the parent company in Orlando "regretted to inform" the manager, 35-year-old Manny DeLeon, that his restaurant is being shuttered because its numbers are down. "While Red Lobster doesn't license franchises," the narrator explains, "over the years he's come to consider this one his," but tomorrow Manny is being transferred (and demoted) to an Olive Garden nearby. He can take four of his 44 employees with him, but the rest are being laid off or have already quit, and Manny is determined -- sweetly, naively -- to make their last day together more meaningful than it can possibly be.
Although nothing goes quite right for Manny, nothing goes particularly wrong either. The scope and emotional range of this poignant story are surprisingly narrow, as though O'Nan locked himself in a narrative box, tied one hand behind his back and then dared himself to make it engaging. The fact that he pulls it off is a testament to his precision and empathy.
"Thanks for thinking of Red Lobster," Manny tells some disgruntled diners as they shuffle back out into a snow storm. "But what does it mean?" he wonders to himself. "Who, besides the people who actually work here, thinks about Red Lobster? And even they don't really think about it." Somehow, O'Nan manages to acknowledge the irrelevancy of this place while demanding that we think about it carefully for a few hours. And why not? Red Lobster -- a "family" restaurant that promises the same decor, the same "Endless Shrimp," anywhere across the country -- is a perfect setting in which to examine the lives of people who cook and clean and serve. The setup promises a kind of Nickel and Dimed expos¿ of minimum-wage drudgery, the struggles of single moms without health insurance, the humiliations of sexual harassment. But there's no soap box under this novel. O'Nan just wants us to watch one day as the snow piles up outside, the customers trickle in and out, and the workers who bothered to show up go through the motion of preparing their last meals together. In his careful description of the routines of cleaning and cooking and serving, O'Nan manages to catch the subtle melody of humble labor.
Manny, in particular, is a masterful portrait. "He's right on time," O'Nan writes, "even now trying to lead by example, when there's no point." To him, the Red Lobster is "surprisingly beautiful," a clean, well-lighted place. "The restaurant looks warm and alive and welcoming, a place anyone would want to go. It looks like a painting, and he feels proud, as if this is his work, and in a way it is, except it's over."
But even on his last day, Manny "wants it to be perfect." He knows it's silly, but he can't help hoping that his customers will realize what a fine place this is. He "wants them to say this is the best meal they've ever eaten, and the most memorable." Passing an elderly couple's table, "he's inordinately proud that they've both cleaned their plates." Manny's pride would be so easy to satirize -- or pity -- but instead O'Nan sees the muted nobility in his devotion.
And he sees Manny's weaknesses, too: his sentimentality, his softheartedness, his avoidance of confrontation. Mixed up with his sadness about the restaurant closing is Manny's reluctance to let go of an old girlfriend who works here. Once they close tonight, he won't see her again, and Manny has invested the evening with enormous romantic potential -- none of which can possibly be realized. They've both moved on: She has a steady, hulking boyfriend, and there's a pregnant woman waiting for Manny at home. Yet "he wants to make a final declaration," O'Nan writes. " 'I love you' or something equally futile -- but she's already headed for the door."
Full of regret and gentle humor, Last Night at the Lobster serves up the kind of delicate sadness that too often gets ruined by the slimy superiority that masquerades as sympathy for working-class people. It wouldn't take much longer to read this story than to polish off a large helping of hush puppies, but it's a far more nutritious meal. *
Ron Charles is a senior editor at Book World. Send e-mail to email@example.com.