In the hands of Stewart O'Nan, the intricacies of the everyday are very revealing and worthwhile. It's in these details that his characters are born, and in which the reader learns so much.
My first exposure to O'Nan was The Good Wife, in which we spend a couple of decades with Patty, the young wife of a man convicted of a felony. This book was so good that to this day I can still feel Patty as she navigated her way through the penal system and raised her son alone while remaining devoted to and supportive of her husband.
O'Nan's latest book, Last Night at the Lobster, introduces us to Manny, the manager of a Red Lobster outside a mall in Connecticut. It's not a successful restaurant, and we meet Manny as he drives into the parking lot to open the restaurant for the last time. Corporate has decided to close this particular restaurant five days before Christmas.
If that isn't bad enough, Manny was allowed to take only five of his employees with him when he was transferred to the Olive Garden in the next town over. Oh, and he's being demoted to assistant manager at the new place.
Did I mention there is a blizzard forecasted? The sky is unceremoniously dumping foot after foot of snow on the region on this auspicious day.
Manny is not the reason the Lobster has floundered. If anything, his conscientious attitude is a great advantage to the corporation. Manny has made it his duty to keep his restaurant running. Every thought, every action, has been its sustenance. Now he has to shut it down. With every action Manny has to take, we see the dedication coupled with sadness and futility.
One last insult: Manny and his employees may not tell their customers the restaurant will not open after this day, so he has to treat it like it will be there tomorrow.
In Lobster, Manny has a typical atypical day with what to him is a familiar cast of characters. It may be their last day, but everyone still dances the same steps they have practiced together every day. He has worked with these people, but he does not romanticize them. Those who do not arrive for their last day of work are not vilified. He knows he built relationships that, for the most part, are temporary. Those who are not transferring with him will not seek him out. He knows this and does not blame them.
The customers are typical, but in O’Nan’s hands, they are not stereotypical. Readers see the retirement party, the mother with an ill-behaved child and the grandmothers through Manny’s eyes. His assessments are not hostile. He is realistic. Anyone who has worked in restaurants or food service recognizes them. (Come to think of it, anyone who has eaten in restaurants will recognize them.)
For O’Nan, the characters are the story. Stories unfold with every thought, every action, every gesture. It is sad and lovely, exquisite and haunting. These people will stay with you for a long time.
I recommend this novel. I have two more O’Nan novels I have found at used bookstores in the area, and I look forward to reading them as well.
Oh, and one last thing: go to the book's Web page and enjoy the subtle yet special effect. (Hint: you'll want to go back in August....)