I am a fan of Stewart O’Nan ever since Snow Angels and The Names of the Dead, but somehow his releases have snuck under my radar and I missed them. Of course, the good side of that is that I still have several of his books to read. I caught up with Last Night at the Lobster thanks to a great article suggesting good books to read to understand white working class voters more. Coming from a white working class background in the rural Midwest, the stereotype seems unreal to me. I don’t know people like that. But I do know people like those you find in O’Nan’s work, people who work hard, do not get ahead, but keep doing what they are supposed to do, no matter how boring, alienating and unsatisfying it is, because it is the thing to do.
Manny is the manager of a typical Red Lobster in New England. He is punctilious in doing his job, following his checklists with care, always being loyal to a company who is not loyal in return. Indeed, after all these years working his way up to manager, the company has decided to shut down the restaurant despite its relatively good performance. He gets to take four of his workers with him to another restaurant, an Olive Garden, where he will be an assistant manager.
Since it is the last day, a lot of people who won’t be moving on don’t show up, but some do, many out of loyalty to Manny. The novel really is the story of this last shift, the hassles with customers, the care for old, loyal customers, the inter-staff jealousies and conflicts, the sorrow of ending what has been a family, dysfunctional as can be, but a family, for Manny.
It is also the last day he will be seeing the server whom he loves. They had an affair, but both have obligations and both are people who do the right thing. The right thing can by a tyranny at times.
Stewart O’Nan made a restaurant shift suspenseful and fascinating, adding drama to making cheddar biscuits and salting a sidewalk. He showed the tenderness of friendship and the frustrated anger of not being seen, of being disrespected. This book is humane, kind and so full of love for those people who do the work, day in and day out, work that is viewed with contempt by many who do not value work if it is not well-paid. O’Nan sees people that many Americans only look at.