February 5, 2008
Last Night at the Lobster
Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O'Nan
Rating: 2/5 (Below Average)
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. Clichéd 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!