Friday, June 27, 2008

Closing Time

Last Night at the Lobster is a small book that tells a small story. The Red Lobster restaurant located next to a somewhat shabby mall in suburban Connecticut is about to close. Despite the best efforts of manager Manny DeLeon, the restaurant has been under performing and corporate headquarters has decided to shut it down. It is five days before Christmas and Manny and his employees must serve one last lunch and dinner. Five of them, including Manny, have been offered jobs at the Olive Garden in the next town, but the rest will be laid off. So it's up to Manny to cajole his disgruntled crew to rise to the occasion one last time and serve their customers. He also is struggling to deal with the ex-girlfriend waitress he's still in love with, and the selection of a Christmas gift for his pregnant current girlfriend.

Author Stewart O'Nan has been called “the bard of the working class” and this book displays his empathy for the struggles of the restaurant crew, especially Manny. The story follows Manny's last day from the moment he pulls into the parking lot behind the restaurant to the moment he drives out of the mall in a snowstorm that night. His devotion to his job and to the restaurant itself is touching. We can sense his fondness for everything from the Frialators to the fiberglass marlin. And he is devoted to his family of employees as well. He tries to inspire them even as he senses their resentment of their jobs and maybe even of him. He wants to please his customers, even though there's no hope for return business. He knows how foolish he seems but he can't help himself. Just as he can't help his continued longing for his former girlfriend Jacquie. Even as a blizzard blows in and his employees walk out in the middle of their shifts, Manny refuses to close early and holds out hope for a few more customers.

O'Nan's descriptions of the ebb and flow of the restaurant life ring true. The hectic activity as food is prepared, tables are served, dishes are washed seems to occur in real-time. There's even some humor in the description of an oblivious mother and her obnoxious toddler. But his greatest talent is in his honest, sympathetic portrayal of a decent man struggling to do his job and to offer kindness to the people around him. I hope the people at the Olive Garden will appreciate him.

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