Last Night at the Lobster

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Perched in the far corner of a run-down New England mall, the Red Lobster hasn't been making its numbers and headquarters has pulled the plug. But manager Manny DeLeon still needs to navigate a tricky last shift. With four shopping days left until Christmas, Manny must convince his near-mutinous staff to hunker down and serve the final onslaught of hungry retirees, lunatics, and holiday office parties. All the while, he's wondering how to handle the waitress he's still in love with, his pregnant girlfriend at ...
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Last Night at the Lobster

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Overview

Perched in the far corner of a run-down New England mall, the Red Lobster hasn't been making its numbers and headquarters has pulled the plug. But manager Manny DeLeon still needs to navigate a tricky last shift. With four shopping days left until Christmas, Manny must convince his near-mutinous staff to hunker down and serve the final onslaught of hungry retirees, lunatics, and holiday office parties. All the while, he's wondering how to handle the waitress he's still in love with, his pregnant girlfriend at home, and where to find the present that will make everything better.
Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

Granta
A Bittersweet Tale of Work and Love from One of "America's Best Young Novelists.
Nathaniel Rich
O'Nan's empathy for his characters is one of his great gifts as a novelist, and it is an impressive achievement that Manny's misplaced affection for Red Lobster is not risible, but tragic. There is a powerful dignity to Manny's proud desire to do hard, productive work and contribute something of value to the people with whom he lives and toils. But O'Nan is also a bitter realist. So when the Lobster closes, Manny doesn't re-examine his relationship with Deena or ponder a new, more fulfilling career. He goes to work at Olive Garden.
—The New York Times
Ron Charles
The scope and emotional range of this poignant story are surprisingly narrow, as though O'Nan locked himself in a narrative box, tied one hand behind his back and then dared himself to make it engaging. The fact that he pulls it off is a testament to his precision and empathy…Full of regret and gentle humor, Last Night at the Lobster serves up the kind of delicate sadness that too often gets ruined by the slimy superiority that masquerades as sympathy for working-class people. It wouldn't take much longer to read this story than to polish off a large helping of hush puppies, but it's a far more nutritious meal.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Set on the last day of business of a Connecticut Red Lobster, this touching novel by the author of Snow Angelsand A Prayer for the Dyingtells the story of Manny DeLeon, a conscientious, committed restaurant manager any national chain would want to keep. Instead, corporate has notified Manny that his-and Manny does think of the restaurant as his-New Britain, Conn., location is not meeting expectations and will close December 20. On top of that, he'll be assigned to a nearby Olive Garden and downgraded to assistant manager. It's a loss he tries to rationalize much as he does the loss of Jacquie, a waitress and the former not-so-secret lover he suspects means more to him than his girlfriend Deena, who is pregnant with his child. On this last night, Manny is committed to a dream of perfection, but no one and nothing seems to share his vision: a blizzard batters the area, customers are sparse, employees don't show up and Manny has a tough time finding a Christmas gift for Deena. Lunch gives way to dinner with hardly anyone stopping to eat, but Manny refuses to close early or give up hope. Small but not slight, the novel is a concise, poignant portrait of a man on the verge of losing himself. (Nov.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
USA Today
A delightful heartbreaker of a novel . . . Exquisite.
Entertainment Weekly
O'Nan crafts a perfectly observed slice of working- class life.
The Washington Post Book World
A masterful portrait.
Library Journal

O'Nan's tenth novel (after The Good Wife) demonstrates once again why the author is known as the "bard of the working class." It's December 20, closing day for the New Britain, CT, Red Lobster restaurant, abandoned by headquarters owing to mediocre sales. Manager Manny De Leo had to let most of his employees go-only five can transfer with him to the Olive Garden-and is counting on the good will of a few to run the place. As he opens, we hear in intimate detail about routine tasks (changing the oil in the Frialator) and tacky decorations (the shellacked marlin on the wall). Manny will miss it; it's his shop, and he takes pride in it. He'll also miss Jacquie, the waitress with whom he had a brief, intense affair. As snow falls, Manny handles the regulars, Christmas parties, the mall crowd, and his small crew with aplomb, constantly aware of his losses. This slice-of-life novel is funny, poignant, and exquisitely rendered. Strongly recommended for all fiction collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ7/07.]
—Nancy Fontaine

Kirkus Reviews
A rueful mood piece from prolific, eclectic O'Nan (The Good Wife, 2005, etc.) about the closing of a chain restaurant. On a snowy morning just a few days before Christmas, general manager Manny DeLeon opens the Red Lobster in New Britain, Conn., for the last time. Corporate ownership is closing this branch near a dying mall, and though Manny is moving to the Olive Garden in Bristol (with a demotion to assistant manager), he can take only four people with him. Unsurprisingly, most of the understandably pissed-off, soon-to-be-unemployed workers don't bother to show for the last shift. O'Nan paints a vivid picture of the world of minimum-wage labor, where people have little incentive to be responsible or reliable. Manny is both, scrambling to keep the restaurant running smoothly in the middle of a blizzard, even though it's the last day and no one cares but him. Personally, he's less upright. He doesn't want to marry his pregnant girlfriend Deena and still carries a torch for Jacquie, a waitress who's refused to come to the Olive Garden because their affair is over. There's hardly any plot here, just the frantic rush to serve lunch-O'Nan's depiction of the complex organization of meal preparation and service is the best since Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential-and the long wait through a sparsely populated dinner to shut the place down forever. Customers from hell and surly staff interact in a dance of clashing personalities that would be a marvelous comedy of manners if the overall tone weren't so sad. In his mid-30s, Manny is plagued by regret over Jacquie and not terribly optimistic about his future. O'Nan hews to a neglected literary tradition by focusing his sympathetic attentionon people with few options. He offers no political message, merely the reminder that blue-collar lives are as charged with moral quandaries and professional difficulties as those of their better-dressed, more affluent fellow Americans. Very low-key, but haunting and quietly provocative. Agent: David Gernert/The Gernert Company
The Barnes & Noble Review
No American novelist loves the dead-end town quite like Stewart O'Nan. In the 15 books that have poured out of him since 1994, he has visited the snowy, forgotten hamlets of upstate New York, and the bombed-out streets of East Liberty, Pittsburgh. He has twice set novels in those most forgotten metropolises, our prisons. Now O'Nan peers into a suburban Connecticut Red Lobster restaurant on the last night of its operation. Who knew an all-you-can-eat shrimp buffet could evoke such mournful, Edward Hopper–ish pathos?

It's all in the telling. At the helm of this sinking ship is O'Nan's likable hero, Manny DeLeon, a ten-year-veteran of the Lobster, soon-to-be father, and stickler for protocol. As the tale begins, Manny pilots his big old Buick Regal into the restaurant's empty parking lot. A light drifting of snow has begun to fall, with more on the way. Numbers for the restaurant have been dropping, too, which is why Manny and five other employees of his choosing are being packed off for an Olive Garden in nearby Bristol, Connecticut -- another Darden, Inc. restaurant. The rest are being let go. Freed is more like it.

It's a chintzy place, the Lobster, full of Muzak and laminated marlins and bar drinks like the Lobstertini. Yet as Manny flicks on the lights, checks the safe, and inspects the wait station, it's hard not to absorb a flicker of the pride he feels about running it, holding the crew together. One by one, they stumble in: Eddie, the floor man; Roz, the dependable waitress; Ty, the chef; Leron, the line guy; and Jacquie, the other waitress, with whom Manny once had a fling. She now gets driven to work by a star cricket player, while Manny calls home to a new girlfriend, Deena, soon to be the mother of his child.

There are enough back-stories darting among this crew to create some real drama, but O'Nan keeps his focus on the entropic melancholy of a world shutting down. Manny takes it the hardest. For him, it's not just a job setback but a break in the logical chain of events that become the story of one's life -- a rupture mirrored by his break with Jacquie and sudden fatherhood with Deena. "He used to marvel at the fact that out of the millions of the people in the world they'd somehow found each other," O'Nan writes from Manny's point of view. "Now looking out at the snow falling on the darkened cars, he thinks it's an even bigger mystery, and, like the Lobster, a waste."

For all the triumph of realism, you don't often see characters work in American fiction -- it's too easy to merely imply. Not here. O'Nan has clearly spent some time hugging a vinyl booth somewhere, because you could set up and take down a Red Lobster from the descriptions in this novel: the mixing of biscuits, the choosing of specials, the clearing of the entrance walk with bags of ice melter. It all begins to feel a little pedantic, until it dawns on you that the purpose of these details is to show how a restaurant isn't one person, but rather the sum -- and hum -- of its working partners.

All this springs into action when the doors open just after noon, and the Lobster's first regular -- a retired high school physical ed teacher -- strolls in for his coffee and paper and fish lunch. O'Nan captures the mixture of boredom and professionalism, skill and improvisation that ripples through the kitchen. A retirement party swings through, and suddenly the crew is slammed, sending out orders as fast as they can. Just when they get on top of it, a hyperactive child begins throwing up his lunch.

In Down and Out in Paris and London, one of George Orwell's coworkers famously barked, "What is restaurant work? You are carving a chicken and it falls on the floor. You apologize, you bow, you go out; and in five minutes you come back by another door -- with the same chicken. This is restaurant work." You won't fund such rakish shenanigans at O'Nan's Lobster. This is, after all, a corporate chain, which O'Nan reveals through the small details. Manny must calculate spillage down to the last ounce. Even the swizzle sticks will be recycled, sent back to some central processing plant and shipped out to one of Darden, Inc.'s many other establishments.

It's impossible to miss the political angle of O'Nan's story, which begins with two frontispiece quotations, one from a poem about unheralded workers, "never in a poem." The other is a bite of statistics from MSN.com, noting that in 2005 Darden Restaurants "raised its outlook and expects full year 2005 diluted net earnings per share growth in the range of 22% to 27%." In other words, far away, at the barely visible end of a decision made to increase shareholder profits, there's a room of workers like the cast of this novel, made to pack up, move on, or just go home, so people who never eat there can continue to make money.

This is not idle politicizing. Eighty percent of the U.S. economy comes from the service sector now, which means that in some ways, the restaurant novel is to today what Willa Cather's and John Steinbeck's novels were to America in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s. Kiran Desai set a large part of The Inheritance of Loss, her 2006 Booker Prize winner, in Indian restaurants in New York City. Monica Ali's is at work on a novel set in a hotel restaurant kitchen in London. These are the places immigrants wind up shoulder-to-shoulder with the working poor when they are new to a country.

O'Nan doesn't make too much fuss over the melting-pot around the All-Clad pots. He simply allows the differences between his characters to rise up through their voices. He's more concerned with the dignity that can be gleaned from an honest day's work, and the sorrow which descends, mercilessly and mindlessly, like the falling snow, when those jobs are taken away. In the novel's saddest scene, Manny runs out across the street to the rapidly emptying mall to buy Deena a Christmas present from one of the remaining stores. "His mission is simple," O'Nan writes. "Buy something she will love, and love him for buying." It's an impossible quest, but one that will get a little harder, the day after this novel closes. --John Freeman

John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle. He is writing a book on the tyranny of email for Scribner.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780670018277
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 11/1/2007
  • Pages: 160
  • Product dimensions: 5.36 (w) x 7.82 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Stewart O'Nan
Stewart O'Nan's award-winning fiction includes Snow Angels, The Names of the Dead, The Speed Queen, A World Away, A Prayer for the Dying, Everyday People, and the story collection In the Walled City. In 1996, Granta named him one of America's Best Young Novelists. O'Nan lives with his family in Avon, Connecticut.

Biography

Stewart O'Nan grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, addicted to cartoons, horror comics, Tarzan, science fiction, movies, TV, and garage punk. He studied aerospace engineering at Boston University, where he developed more rarified tastes (Camus, Coltrane, and the Beats), along with a lifelong obsession with the Boston Red Sox. After graduation, he worked as a test engineer for Grumman Aerospace in Long Island, devoting every spare moment he could find to writing. Then, with the encouragement of his wife, he enrolled in Cornell University to pursue a master's degree.

By the time O'Nan had finished graduate school, a few of his short stories had begun to attract some attention. He moved his family west and taught at the University of Central Oklahoma and the University of New Mexico. Then, in 1993, he hit pay dirt when his short story collection, In the Walled City, won the Drue Heinz Prize for Short Fiction. A year later, his first novel, Snow Angels, was awarded a Pirate's Alley William Faulkner Prize. Since then, he has gone on to forge a distinguished literary career. A self-described "fiction-writing machine," the multi-award-winning O'Nan averages a book a year. In 1996, Granta named him one of the Twenty Best Young American Novelists.

Although critics try to shoehorn his fiction into the horror genre, O'Nan's writing is far too complex and nuanced to permit such blatant categorization. True, his stories are suffused with trauma and tragedy, and his characters react unpredictably to the stress of terrible events; but the violence in O'Nan's fiction owes as much to Flannery O'Connor as to Stephen King -- two authors he acknowledges as important influences.

In addition to his novels, the prolific O'Nan has written a nonfiction account of the notorious 1944 Hartford Circus Fire. He is also co-author with fellow Bo-Sox fan Stephen King of Faithful, a chronicle of the team's legendary 2004 season.

Good To Know

In our exclusive interview, Stewart O'Nan shared some fun and fascinating facts about himself:

"Growing up, I delivered the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to David McCullough's, Annie Dillard's and Nathaniel Philbrick's houses. The Philbricks tipped you a dime to put it in their screen door."

"The first novels I read with rapt fascination were Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan series -- coverless, bought for a dime apiece at a Cub Scout rummage sale."

"Back in the early '80s, when I'd just begun to read seriously, I met Doris Lessing at the Kenmore Square Barnes & Noble before her very first game at Fenway Park. She seemed genuinely excited, and apprehensive, as if she might be asked to play."

"The library is still my favorite place in the world."

"I'd rather be reading than doing anything else, including writing."

"I'm an obsessive collector -- coins, books, records, baseball cards."

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    1. Also Known As:
      James Coltrane
    2. Hometown:
      Avon, CT
    1. Date of Birth:
      February 4, 1961
    2. Place of Birth:
      Pittsburgh, PA
    1. Education:
      B.S., Aerospace Engineering, Boston University, 1983; M.F.A., Cornell University, 1992
    2. Website:

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 28 )
Rating Distribution

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(3)

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(11)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 28 Customer Reviews
  • Posted June 22, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    A beautiful portrait of American life

    This is a riveting book in spite of its relatively mundane subject. O'Nan can find the simplistic notions that create compound to shape the events of our everyday lives and painstakingly draws them out for the readers to absorb and digest. This book, about little more than the last night of a restaurant actually encompasses so much more. A great book.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted December 11, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Simple, but moving

    My review: This is the second O'Nan book I have read, after Snow Angels. Even though Lobster does not have a dramatic plot, it was a beautifully written novella. It is a simple story, the last night of Manny managing a Red Lobster before it closes and he is transferred to work at an Olive Garden. Lots of thing go wrong; staff that doesn't show up, a blizzard, and the loss of an old love, but he is determined to stay open and be responsible. Manny is really the only character that is delved into but the rest of the characters add some flavor. It is difficult to describe but I think this exemplifies what a good writer can do with the most simple of stories. And O'Nan is a great writer. I enjoyed this one and have Songs of the Missing on my tbr list.
    my rating 4.5/5

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 17, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Short Yet Poignant

    As a native of Connecticut I am familiar with the setting of Last Night at the Lobster. So for me this story also brought me memories of my home state.

    O'Nan evokes the feelings of 'being there' with his beautiful descriptive passages. I could almost feel the biting wind driving the swirling snow of the early hours of the blizzard.

    By now you'll know that the story centers around the manager of a chain restaurant that is literally on the verge of closing. Not a glamorous job by any means, however, Manager Manny DeLeon has embraced the position and is a study is corporate loyalty. Not so his employees with whom he must deal on this closing day.

    The cast of characters is as complex as life itself. The reader is given much to digest in a short space but the facts are succinct and easily understood. There's Eddie the handicapped employee who arrives via van, Ty the Executive Chef, Roz the head waitress, Jacquie who was at one time Manny's lover (and whom he still thinks he loves), and several disgruntled others who will shortly be out of work.

    The blizzard conditions and lack of customers only deepen the clarity with which we see the behind the scenes areas of a corporate outpost.

    The story is original, the cast unique, the entire novel a truly wonderful read especially on a snowy day.

    My only question is: what happens to the lobsters in the tank?

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 16, 2008

    Real folks revealed

    O'Nan nails the food service job with all the usual characters - yet avoids caricatures. You believe every minute. It's just a slow snowy night at the Lobster, yet you'll come back to this perfect story often, and that's my measure of success.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 1, 2008

    Lobsters get off easy

    This book quickly draws you into the lives of the characters. Easy to relate to every one from hostess to dishwasher. If you have ever worked in the industry you know these are people you have had the pleasure to know. A quick easy read that was over to soon.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 27, 2011

    No, nothing happens. And that's the point.

    If you are looking for a relationship drama - turn around.
    If you're looking for some cataclysmic life altering epiphany to occur to the protagonist - step away from the computer.

    That's not what O'Nan does. He writes about the everyday mundane thoughts and actions of the "every" person. It's not meant to be exciting; it's meant to put you inside someone else's life and head. If that's your thing; read this. If this sounds boring to you; look at another book.

    I have to be in the right state of mind to read O'Nan. If I want an entertaining and interestingly far-fetched book, I pick up John Irving.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 7, 2011

    Gripping - loved the characters!

    Who hasn't been to Red Lobster? This book takes us to one on its last day...it is closing. We meet the people who work there and discover how their lives have intertwined over the years. I could have spent more time with the employees, (some of) the customers, the restaurant and the atmosphere created by the snow storm. But, alas, it was the last night.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 18, 2011

    Not Worth It!

    This book isn't "awful" as far as books go. The writing style is very detailed in the minutiae of running a restaurant, but very subtle in the actual storyline, so many readers might get upset and think, "Nothing happens here!" My real problem with the book overall was that I paid $11.99 for an e-book that was only 94 pages long!!!! So not worth it!

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 21, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Pricing!!!!

    Unbelivable that is is more expensive as a nookbook. Why oh why didn't I buy a Kindle!!!!!!!!

    1 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 2, 2008

    All Style, No Substance

    I can summarize this book in two words: Nothing happens. I bought it because it was Atlantic Monthly's pick. I won't soon trust their judgement again. This attempt at incisive Tom Wolfe-like commentary on popular culture is instead just banal and boring. I couldn't finish, even though it's a slim thing. So my son read it and confirmed my suspicions: Nothing Happens. So unless you're interested in picking up incidental knowledge about french fryers and how to open up a restaurant, skip this one.

    1 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 28, 2011

    Pass!

    I read this book for a book group discussion. I was not impressed. I loved Manny but found the book to be a bit boring. Thank goodness it was short. It is certainly not worth the amount that is being charged for this book.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 16, 2009

    Fair

    Readable if you have nothing better to do.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 16, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Just a bit boring

    Just a bit boring.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 29, 2008

    One scene

    This relatively short novel takes place entirely inside a Red Lobster restaurant. The writing is solid but I was hoping for strong characters or some revelation within the story line that would make me care. Neither happens. It is amazing this one was published.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 9, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted June 11, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted June 9, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 4, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted December 27, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 27, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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