Last Night at the Lobster

Having grown up in a solidly middle-class American household, I was raised to believe in the value of hard work, and that hard work has its rewards. Though you might begin your working life flipping burgers, it was understood that your labor and persistence were bound to bring you personal fulfillment and prosperity in due time. From this assumption, it follows that this kind of job is only temporary—that it’s possible to endure the low pay and lack of dignity because the experience is only a character-building stepping stone on the way to a world of better and more remunerative opportunities.

Many of the stories told in fiction and movies about low-wage work operate under exactly these assumptions: that it’s temporary, because that the characters couldn’t possibly suffer under these kinds of conditions forever. Characters at fast food restaurants and similar establishments are almost invariably very young, and we enjoy seeing them goofing off and resisting the tedium and humiliation of their day-to-day work, knowing all the while that they’ll find their way to something better before the story’s done.

But the characters in Stewart O’Nan‘s novel Last Night at the Lobster don’t have the luxury of goofing off on their way to a solidly middle-class future. The book’s central character, Manny, has succeeded in making his career as a Red Lobster manager into something dignified and at least somewhat fulfilling: he’s worked hard, has climbed to the rank of manager, and now approaches his job with a dedication, thoroughness, and sincerity that has earned him some amount of satisfaction. But because of a decision made in a distant corporate office, Manny is now facing the task of guiding the restaurant from open to close for the final time—the restaurant’s being shut down for good, and on Monday he’ll report to an Olive Garden, with what amounts to a demotion to assistant manager. This change in fortune is causing Manny to take stock in his life, and to consider exactly what all his years of hard work has actually gotten him.

On this day, Manny offers the company-standard farewell (“Thanks for thinking of Red Lobster”) to some departing customers as usual, but now he wonders about the emptiness of his words. O’Nan writes:

By now he says this as a reflex, but what does it mean? Who, besides the people who actually work here, thinks about Red Lobster? And even they don’t really think about it.

Manny is haunted by the sense that he’s done everything right, everything he was supposed to do, for years, yet he hasn’t seen any trace of a real reward. And meanwhile, he’s not sure that his life outside of the Lobster has added up to much more. Though he’s about to have a child with his girlfriend, he’s far from certain about his love for her, and seems to take very little joy from their relationship. He feels much greater passion for Deena—a Red Lobster coworker with whom he recently had an affair. But now it’s over, and Manny wonders about the meaning and value of their brief love for each other:

He used to marvel at the fact that out of the millions of people in the world, they’d somehow found each other, whether it was an accident or destiny or the result of some logical, cascading chain of events. Now, looking out at the snow falling on the darkened cars, it’s an even bigger mystery, and, like the Lobster, a waste.

Though the bulk of Last Night at the Lobster concerns itself with the details of the restaurant’s operations, at its heart is Manny’s frustration, longing, and confusion over the fact that he can’t seem to find any way to get what he wants out of life. Near the end of the book, O’Nan offers a litany of pointless loss: “Everything gets tossed. The skewers, the fries, the rice–everything they stockpiled. The coleslaw goes, and the baked potatoes, all the cauliflower, tray on tray of biscuits….” It’s all a terrible waste, and for no good reason. What’s the point of working so hard for the restaurant, when nobody would remember it a few days after it closed? And what’s the point of being in love, if in the end that love will just be tossed away?

O’Nan doesn’t treat Manny’s life as a joke; he recognizes the tragedy in the frustration Manny feels as he leaves one mostly meaningless job behind, and prepares to take on another with no real hope of finding anything better. Just like the middle-class kids goofing off in the fast food kitchen, Manny can see the absurdity of the work he has to do, and longs to find something more fulfilling. But unlike those middle-class kids (or the protagonists of most fiction and movies about the frustrations of low-wage work), no one’s going to pay for Manny to get to college, or offer him any other kind of hand. There’s very little he can do except keep working hard—whether it ends up paying off or not.


6 Responses to “Last Night at the Lobster”

  1. 1 Rory April 28, 2008 at 5:26 PM

    Funny. I’ve recently read “River of Shadows” and “Last Night at the Lobster,” too. I thought the latter was fantastic. When are you going to get on GoodReads if you’re not already? You can spread the reading-love very easily that way….

  2. 2 goodreadings April 29, 2008 at 8:59 AM

    Having only recently succumbed to peer pressure & joined the world of Web 2.0, I don’t know if I’m ready to take on another social networking site just yet (even one so overtly bookish).

    But: glad to hear that you like “Last Night at the Lobster.” I like O’Nan’s unpretentious versatility–that from one book to the next, he seems to be willing to take on different genres, topics, and kinds of characters, but always with a similarly sincere approach. He takes his stories & his characters seriously–whether they work at Red Lobster or are the pastor/sheriff/undertaker of a town in the throes of a 19th-century epidemic.

  3. 3 Rory April 29, 2008 at 1:38 PM

    After “Last Night at the Lobster,” I felt like I’d read something by him before and checked on his bibliography. Whoa, he wrote “The Circus Fire”! That was an enormously moving, elegiac, fascinating book. I sometimes recall details from it out of the blue.

    Anyway, I couldn’t resist putting “Faithful” on hold on my library. O’Nan and King co-authoring a book? I don’t care if it IS about baseball.

    So you call yourself Goodreadings but aren’t sure if you could manage on GoodReads? Baby steps, I guess.

  4. 4 lisamm May 7, 2008 at 11:53 AM

    I loved this book. Excellent review!

  5. 5 thewritingrunner September 4, 2008 at 10:21 PM

    This is one of my favorite O’Nan books, but I really do love them all for different reasons.

  1. 1 My review of Stewart O’Nan’s Songs for the Missing on PopMatters « Good Readings Trackback on January 26, 2009 at 9:21 AM

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