Slice of life novels aren’t what I typically gravitate to, but there’s much to be said for authors who can pull them off. Stewart O’Nan’s novella Last Night at the Lobster kind of felt like finally turning down that dirt road you always drive past. You know the odds of finding a monster, abandoned home or eerily quaint small town are slim, but you go anyway.
For me, Fall was the perfect time to read this. The crunchy golden leaves and mushy green ground are a nice contrast to the sobering day between these pages.
As implied on the cover, the story is set before and during a blizzard in a Red Lobster on the outskirts of a Connecticut mall parking lot. It’s four days before Christmas and Manny Deleon the manager is opening his restaurant for its last day of business. He’s hoping customers come, that his staff won’t flake regardless of the Nor’easter undoubtedly heading their way.
Mall traffic on a gray winter’s day. Midmorning and the street lights are still on, weakly. Scattered flakes drift down like ash, but for now the roads are dry.
You’re with Manny through the mundanity of a slower than slow day. He relishes the tasks of opening, how they feel important to him, reluctant to let go of this space he has come to know and feel ownership for. The restaurant makes him feel accomplished, he has a place here. Getting to know Manny almost solely through his work gives the sense he identifies himself through his job. He knows what it takes to be a good manager. Life outside of work doesn’t offer the same definition. What it takes to be a good man living a full life isn’t so clear.
Tomorrow he assumes a smaller place at some other branch, but he still has this day.
He savors the small things he’ll miss, mostly being responsible for people having a good experience. It’s a good distraction from losing a love and soon to be former co-worker he’ll most definitely lose touch of, and having a current girlfriend he sees no future with. He’s stuck and doesn’t have the option of staying stuck because everything around him is about to change.
That’s it. This is a somber, sometimes sentimental day in the life of a man about to close a chapter in his life. There are some colorful moments. What restaurant story would be complete without a bratty child getting sick or a short staff scrambling to accommodate an office party of bad tippers? While the characters and story didn’t hold my interest, the writing did. I worked in a few restaurants and bars and was weirdly amused by the familiar tedium behind the scenes and futile chaos of working the floor.
At only 160 pages, this is a satisfying read. I’ve heard his novel Snow Angels is good (and was made into a movie) so I’ll probably check that out soon.