by Weston Cutter
The dangerous part of writing about Stewart O’Nan’s phenomenal new Last Night at the Lobster is that there’s the temptation to say—truthfully, too—that this is the best novel (novella? It’s 146 pages: you decide) ever written about a restaurant. Far as I know, it’s the best treatment of a restaurant yet committed to page (and yes, I’ve read D. Gibson’s Waiting: True Confessions of a Waitress, and it’s a decent book, but O’Nan creates the whole restaurant better than Gibson does (which, in fairness, wasn’t her goal, so it’s not really a criticism, but whatever)). What seems like the simplest trap to fall into in a book about a restaurant—especially a chain restaurant like Red Lobster, which is what O’Nan’s writing about—is to cut it too simply, leave it clichéd and obvious, and it’s my great, great pleasure to report that O’Nan’s written a book that happens to be set in a Red Lobster on December 20th, and that the background is that there’s a snowstorm and the Lobster’s going to be closing as of 12/21 and there’s some love triangle stuff, but this book is, magnificently, perfectly, all about heart.
And the reader’s entry into the great big beating heart inside this book? Manny, the manager, a lovable, flawed, deeply good (or deeply trying to be good) guy. Too much detail won’t serve this review all that well, but you should know, picking up and purchasing and making your way into this book, that, in the best possible way, this character is flesh and blood—is real enough to make you ache for him, and laugh with and at him.
The story all takes place on the last day of business at a Red Lobster in the northeast, a Red Lobster like any of the countless chain restaurants we’ve all seen at the edges of mall developments and studding highway exit ramps like bumps from some ancient, giant, invisible corporate mosquito. What O’Nan does so magically is make this Red Lobster—despite the thick shellac of exhaustion and cynicism and weariness any reader may have in approaching a novel about a fucking chain restaurant (I mean, come on, right?)—specific, he makes it real. The foibles and troubles and actual details of this one little place—which, in the book, may very well be nothing but a dot on some corporate ownership map, just as it may be a vague haziness in the mind of the consumers who patronize it (how much do you know about your local Red Lobster? Your local Wendy’s? Could you tell a difference between the one nearest you and another a state or two away? Does any of that even matter? If it doesn’t, why not?))—make it resoundingly real, make it that magic sort of book that’s way, way too rare: a book that, though story, feels emphatically true.
There are within this slim but large-hearted book no tirades against downsizing or corporate layoffs or global-political blah blah blah, but the fact of the book’s drive is, perfectly, the simplest and most final rebuke to any heavily-winded, rhetorically charged argument: we may not love the glowing golden arches stretched forever down the highways, the gas station that could be in any state’s Albany, the queasy equalizing effect globalization has on specificity, but in each of these nameless, identical places are real people, with actual stories, with the same sorts of hopes and frustrations as any of us. The magic of O’Nan’s book is that, thankfully, he tells the largest possible story—about corporate everything, about that faceless/placeless/nameless American fact of chain stores—by telling the small, wonderful, heartening story of the people who do, in fact, have names and faces.
Can you see him there, Manny, the manager of this Red Lobster? It’s the last day of business. He’s just about to open the store, one last time. You’re a fool not to enter.