February 5, 2008

Last Night at the Lobster

Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O'Nan
Contemporary Fiction
Copyright 2007
Finished 1/30/08
Rating: 2/5 (Below Average)

Book Description

Stewart O’Nan has been called “the bard of the working class” and has now crafted a frank and funny yet emotionally resonant tale set within a vivid workaday world seldom seen in contemporary fiction.

Perched in the far corner of a run-down New England mall, The Red Lobster hasn’t been making its numbers and headquarters has pulled the plug. But manager Manny DeLeon still needs to navigate a tricky last shift. With only four shopping days left until Christmas, Manny must convince his near-mutinous staff to hunker down and serve the final onslaught of hungry retirees, lunatics, and holiday office parties. All the while, he’s wondering how to handle the waitress he’s still in love with, his pregnant girlfriend at home, and the perfect present he still needs to buy.

Last Night at the Lobster is a poignant yet redemptive look at what a man does when he discovers that his best might not be good enough.

Like most teenagers of my generation, my first real job was in the food industry; Carl's Jr., to be precise. I had been babysitting for relatives and neighborhood families since I was 11, but I was tired of crying babies and $2.50 an hour and decided to give the restaurant biz a try. My older brothers were making much better money working in real restaurants. (You know. The kind where the wait staff seats you and brings the food to your table in return for a nice tip!) David had worked at Smitty's Pancake House, as well as Sizzler; Neal and Mark both worked for Marie Callender's. (Mmmmmm. The day-old strawberry pies they got to bring home were such a treat!) Ok, I admit it. Working in a real restaurant was too intimidating for this klutz. What if I mixed up an order? What if I tripped carrying one of those huge trays of food?! (How do they carry those things??) Chris wound up at McDonald's, so I opted for Carl's, since it was less than a mile from our house -- close enough to ride my bike when I couldn't borrow Mom's car.

I enjoyed my three- or four-year stint at good 'ol Carl's. The crew felt like a close-knit family, complete with the favorites, not-so-favorites, and annoying siblings. And, of course there were the "regulars" that I can still remember like it was yesterday: The homeless man who came in every morning, absolutely filthy; matted, dirty hair and dirty hands that looked like they were tan, they were so covered with grime. He had a wild, crazy look about him and never said a word other than to place his order: One coffee and 8 sugar packets. He would count out his money, all dirty pennies and dimes, yet always enough for his order. We took pity on this man and occasionally pitched in to buy him a breakfast or lunch. He never made eye contact, wandering off into the dining area to drink cup after cup of coffee (refills were free) until he disappeared 'til the next time. I think he lived under the freeway overpass near my house...

And then there was the charming elderly couple who came in every morning, holding hands while they ordered their usual pancake breakfast and coffee. (He took his with two creamers, but didn't like them to be cold so we took them out of the dairy fridge when we opened at 6 am.) They would always chat with the morning crew, talking about the weather or their grandkids. They were the epitome of a happily-ever-after and I hoped to someday marry someone who would grown old along with me just like they had.

And as long as I live, I'll never forget the young woman with a cute, chubby little baby boy. He had the prettiest blond hair and huge blue eyes. We all loved to make him smile and laugh, and oohed and aahed over his first teeth and steps across the lobby floor. Such a happy little guy. And of course, we all loved to slip an extra hamburger or milk in his mama's bag since we knew she too was homeless. We all worried about her and the baby when they missed a day or two, wondering where they were and if they were warm enough. (Yes, it gets cold in San Diego!) It just occurred to me that that little baby is now somewhere around 30 years old! I wonder what ever became of him and his mama...

I had some good times at Carl's. Ate too many Famous Stars with Cheese (hold the pickles and onions), but it was fun, especially when someone called out, "We've got a bus!" There was a great sense of camaraderie, and while I don't remember too many of my co-workers' names, I do remember sitting back in the break room, gossiping or complaining about a customer, employee or corporate rules. I remember going home after closing, so wound up I couldn't fall asleep for hours. (So, of course I read.) I remember the stink of grease on my polyester uniform and the God-awful hairnet and hat we were required to wear. I remember learning how to do the supply order and how cold that walk-in freezer got when you had to spend 10 or 15 minutes inside, working the inventory numbers. (And trying not to worry about getting locked in and wondering if I was strong enough to use the ax that was mounted on the wall. Come to think of it, what was I supposed to chop, exactly? The door was metal!). I also remember when one of the assistant managers came rushing around to the back-line after close only to step right into a hot vat of fryer grease! Fortunately, I wasn't working that shift. I don't do well in emergencies and that would have been horrific.

So you'd think Last Night at the Lobster would resonate more strongly with me and score a much higher rating than I've given it. Unfortunately, slim as it is (146 pages), I was constantly flipping to the end to see how much more I had to slog through to get to the last page. Clich├ęd characters that failed to evoke any feelings of sympathy (along with a thin plot) left me hoping for something much more substantial. Maybe you really do have to have worked in a real restaurant to appreciate this book. I have a few friends who thought it was very good, so don't be too quick to dismiss it. You can probably read it over a nice slice of pie and coffee at your local diner!


  1. Well, I am sorry that it didn't rate very well for you, but I SO ENJOYED your stories! I never worked at a restaurant of any kind, but I did work at the town grocery store in high school and we had that same type of relationships. And customers. :)

  2. I can't imagine any book being as good as what you just wrote. I loved reading it. I think you ought to publish it somewhere, honestly. Great detail. Poignant and fun and evocative.

  3. Anonymous9:14 AM

    This book doesn't sound like it's for me. But I loved your memories of working at Carl's. What a formative experience for a young girl.


  4. What a cute picture and loved your Carl's stories. What a bummer that the book didn't resonate with you - you would think it would! My dad worked in restaurants all his life so I've been curious about the book because of that. I have so many stories my dad told me that I almost feel like I worked in a restaurant! ha,ha.. Oh well, at least it was a short book :)

  5. Anonymous9:02 PM

    I am the guilty party that persuaded Lesley to read this book. I was very sorry to hear she didn't enjoy it, because I absolutely loved it. This isn't the first time that our opinions on a book have differed so wildly, and I doubt that it will be the last. On the flip side, over the years we have turned each other on to some amazing readss. But this is easily the best book I have read so far this year and I have no doubt that it will be on my list of the best of 2008. I didn't find the characters cliched, I felt like they were people that I worked with years ago when I was in the restaurant business. There isn't much to the plot, but this is a book that just drops in on these character's lives for one day and they leaves - a slice of life. Lesley said don't be quick to dismiss it and I would second that, please give this book a shot - I think you will enjoy it. Les, I absolutely loved the stories (and the picture of you in the spiffy uniform) of your time in fast food, they were fantastic. My best story from my time in restaurants (both fast food and full service), is that I met this cute co-workerl over the fry vat at McDonalds 25 years ago.and we are still together all these years later.

  6. The description of the book actually made me think back to the last day our Borders store was open to customers, with the employees that were left trying to keep their emotions together and old customers coming in just to say goodbye.

    Your stories of your experience at Carl's were wonderful...probably better than the book, but at least the book prompted you to share your memories with us. I love the picture!

  7. Such a fun post about your first job. You have such a great way of telling about it. My first job was at the local small town theater selling concessions. The first several nights I dreamed of scooping up popcorn - over and over and over again.

  8. Anonymous9:43 AM

    I agree with Andi - forget the book, I just love to hear about your memories!

  9. Anonymous9:48 AM

    BTW, I don't know if you saw my review (and author interview) of the culinary school memoir "The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry" - you can find it here: http://thewrittenword.wordpress.com/2008/01/30/the-sharper-your-knife-the-less-you-cry-and-author-interview/
    I really enjoyed it and know that you also like food related books, so I was wondering if you would like my copy? I would be more than happy to send it your way! Just e-mail me with your address and I'll get it in the mail!

  10. Anonymous10:05 AM

    Though I loved "Last Night at the Lobster" I give you your rating. To me it was like an indy film versuses a blockbuster. I knew it would be a character study in people that are in the food industry....I started as kitchen help when I was 13 to chef at 40. I have met each of these people and felt the same pain Manny did at the closing. It spoke to my greased soaked soul. *giggle*

    Loved your experinces at Carl's Jr.

    I love reading your blog.


  11. Andi - Aw, thanks! I still can't get over how many of those memories are so vivid after all these years. I have more, but felt I was beginning to ramble. ;)

    I can see how a job in a grocery store would be similar. Lots of interesting regulars. :)

    Nan - You are so sweet. I'm glad you enjoyed my trip down memory lane. It was a fun review to write.

    Mary - Thank you! It sounds like everyone enjoyed all the anecdotes. It was fun remembering all those details, but I'm so glad I'm not in that line of work anymore!

    Iliana - I suspect the book would've meant more to me if I'd been in a restaurant that either went out of business or had closer relationships with my co-workers. I was so young, busy with high school and dating and worrying about college. Since your dad worked in restaurants all his life, you might enjoy this peek into the business.

    Lee - Hey, we can't all like the same books, right? It's certainly not your fault I didn't appreciate this as much as you. Glad you enjoyed the Carl's Jr. stories. Ugh. Those polyester uniforms were so gross!!

    Janet - Oh, I can see how this book would be similar to Borders #48 closing! I would've cried if I was still working there. Of course, you were there much longer than I was, but I do remember a few of the regulars. I think it was harder to leave the employees than the store, though, when I moved away. I still think of the fun times we all had, especially during the crazy days of the holidays.

    Glad you enjoyed my reminiscing and the picture. Pretty goofy picture!

    Booklogged - It was a fun post to write. Sure brought back a lot of memories.

    I'll bet working in a theater was a fun job. Funny dream! I'm pretty sure I had my share of food dreams when I worked at Carl's!

  12. Stephanie - Thanks! Always a pleasure to entertain all of you. ;)

    Yes, I read your fabulous review for The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry. If you're sure you don't want to hang on to your copy, I'd love to read it. I'll send you my snail-mail address. Thanks!!

    Gayla - I'm glad you and my friend, Lee, both enjoyed this book so well. I may have had my expectations set too high. Who knows.

    Thanks for always being so sweet about my blogging. I'm glad you get so much enjoyment from it. :)

  13. hmmmmm, this one is one my list, and I've been waiting with bated breath for it!! I'm so sad you didn't like it. I'm encouraged, though, by the others who said they did, so I think I'll still go for it.

    Have you read and liked any other Stewart O'Nan?? I loved Prayer for the Dying and The Good Wife, both.

  14. Lisa - Don't let me sway your decision to not read this. If you've enjoyed his other books, you'll probably like this one. No, I haven't read anything else by O'Nan. I won't let this disappointment deter me from trying something else someday.

  15. A friendly, quick read & little morel a small novel many of us could write & probably write better. It's a fleshed-out short story, really. A lot of readers seem to be mesmerized by a book in which nothing much happens. Makes it charming in a way but not a work of genius much less indicate zen insight.

  16. Anonymous7:38 AM

    Great memories of your work at Carl's. You were easily able to relate and appreciate the book because of all your experiences.
    Great blog too!


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