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Last Night at the Lobster
Stewart O'Nan
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INTRODUCTION

There are only four shopping days left until Christmas when Manny DeLeon pulls his beat-up Buick Regal into the parking lot at the Red Lobster—his Red Lobster—at least for one more day. Heís been the general manager of the New Britain location for years and has come to feel a justified pride in its smooth performance. So the news that Darden Restaurants, Inc., plans to close the branch, demote him to assistant manager at a nearby Olive Garden, and fire thirty-nine of the forty-four employees he supervises was a shock that Manny wasnít happy to face.

The past year had already been a rough one. His abuelita (ďgrandmotherĒ in Spanish), who raised him, had passed away, the waitress heíd fallen madly in love with had ended their brief but joyful affair, and his less beloved girlfriend had become pregnant and was soon due to deliver their child. But Manny doesnít indulge in self-pity as he matter-of-factly prepares the restaurant for its final day of service.

He is a little worried about who will show up for work. Since most of the staff has already been let go, heís been running things with a skeleton crew, and keeping them motivated has been tough. To make things worse, a noríeaster is threatening to keep all but the most conscientious workers at home, and Manny fears no snowstorm is going to keep holiday shoppers away from the neighboring mall—which means potentially cranky diners come lunchtime.

As Mannyís staff slowly trickles in, he feels some relief but finds his worry shifting over to his personal life. Deena, his girlfriend, is pressuring him to marry her, and heís got to find time to get her a ďromanticĒ Christmas present, when heís really fantasizing about how to win back Jacquie before the restaurant closes and she walks out of his life forever. But as they open up for lunch, his thoughts return to managing tensions in the kitchen and between the wait staff.

Heís even more short-staffed than he feared, but not so much so that heís willing to close—especially when he can help out bussing tables. While the lunch crowd turns out to be smaller than he expected, itís also more demanding, and a spoiled toddler and an office-party of fourteen run everyone ragged to the point of mutiny. Yet Manny manages to maintain a degree of decorum: placating, mediating, and toiling on as the hours and minutes tick down to this Lobsterís irrevocable end.

Stewart OíNan has been hailed as ďthe bard of the working class,Ē and he has crafted here a powerful and vividly real day-in-the-life of an American everyman that ponders the value of honor and the measure of a manís achievement weighed against the corporate bottom line and asks where, in the midst of it all, is there a place for love?

 

ABOUT STEWART OíNAN

Stewart O'Nan is the author of ten novels, including Snow Angels and A Prayer for the Dying, as well as works of nonfiction, including the bestselling book with Stephen King on the Boston Red Sox, Faithful. Granta named him one of the twenty Best Young American Novelists in 1995. He lives with his family in Avon, Connecticut.

 

A CONVERSATION WITH STEWART OíNAN

Q. Although many of your novels depict the lives and struggles of everyday people, this is something of a departure for you. What inspired Last Night at the Lobster?

A. A town over from us, the regulars showed up one Sunday morning to their local Red Lobster and found the front doors locked. Just as in the book, Darden Restaurants, Inc., decided that locationís receipts werenít good enough and shut it down. When I read about it in the paper, I thought back to my experience working in kitchens and how each layer (management, cooks, waitstaff, kitchen) becomes both its own little territorial group yet also part of the functioning whole, and while people may bitch and squabble (and even despise each other), theyíre like a family. Here was a family, and a whole little world, that had disappeared overnight.

Q. Since the locale is so critical to your story, what made you choose the Red Lobster?

A. People consider chain restaurants soulless noplaces, boxes out along the commercial strip. Theyíre everywhere, and to most people unremarkable, as bland as the food they serve. I liked the fact theyíre overlooked, hidden in plain sight. And Red Lobsterís not cheap. Itís not fast food, and yet itís not a real restaurant either, just a copy of a corporate ideal. Itís a completely American in-between zone, a natural stage for my people.

Q. Did you inform anyone at Darden Restaurants of your intentions? If so, what was their response?

A. I didnít tell anyone at Darden. I didnít want any official help or interference. Better to snoop around on my own.

Q. Your attention to detail is incredible. How did you conduct your research? What were some of the more interesting or startling facts you uncovered?

A. I went to a bunch of different Red Lobsters and other restaurants and kitchens. I lurked around, taking notes and pictures, grabbed some menus. I rooted out some blogs written by employees; but just talking with people who worked there and watching and listening to the front and back of the house in action, the way people treat each other, the small everyday dramas—that was the best.

The most startling fact to me, thinking about Manny, is that Darden doesnít sell franchises, so a manager of a Red Lobster or Olive Garden has all the daily responsibilities of an owner but none of the privileges. He or she can put all of his or her hard work and pride into the place and have it snatched away at the whim of the home office.

Q. The characters are so simply yet so perfectly sketched and youíve really captured the nuances of the work dynamic. Itís hard to believe that they arenít all real people. Did you base any of them on your own experience?

A. Itís a small group, and Manny has to rely on them so heavily—and is so keyed-up for this last double shift—that every exchange is weighted. After so long, at such close quarters, he thinks he knows exactly what he can expect from them, and yet they continually surprise him, because his hopes for the day are just too high, and no one cares as much as he does.

Most of the characters are based on people I knew from my days working in kitchens. A few—Roz, Ty, Eddie, Leron, Jacquie—are very close to the originals (Roz is Rozís real name, and there was a Fat Kathy who fought with her boyfriend in the parking lot), but I see them as separate from them, with lives that extend well beyond the borders of the story.

Q. Would it be fair to say that the marlin in this novel is related to another literary marlin?

A. I hadnít actually thought of the Old Manís big fish, but it sort of fits. Manny tries to see some grandeur and dignity in this debased and doomed version of the marlin. And he hopes to show some grace under pressure. Though I should say that the bookís true literary ancestor is Dickensís A Christmas Carol, with Darden Restaurants as Scrooge and Manny as Bob Cratchit, Eddie as Tiny Tim..

Q. Is Manny ultimately meant to be a hero or a loser?

A. Manny is like Larry in The Names of the Dead or Jacob in A Prayer for the Dying or Patty in The Good Wife. Heís a decent person doing his best for everyone in an impossible situation, and heís alone. Heís responsible and committed to this hopeless task (and quest) when everyone else thinks he should forget about it. Is Don Quixote a hero or a fool? Another early model for Last Night was High Noon, with Manny as Gary Cooper. I think Manny knows a lot about work and honor and loyalty, as antiquated as those notions are in the face of his situation. In the end he may lose everything, but he doesnít lose himself.

Q. You preface the novel with a quote by the Pulitzer PrizeĖwinning Latino poet Luis Alberto Urrea. Itís about the anonymous ďvatos never in a poem.Ē Was Manny always meant to be a Latino character, and how does his ethnic identity affect the story?

A. Manny was there from the very beginning, driving to work in his abuelitaís car, his sole inheritance. Heís an unsung guy, like most of the folks I write about. Heís not exceptional or hip or flamboyant. Heís not someone who would consider himself interesting. Like the Red Lobster, heís everywhere in America but rarely, if ever, heard from. His ethnicity is an irreducible part of him, intertwined with his pride and his love and his grief. While it sets him apart from the Lobsterís clientele (mostly suburban white Anglo women), it also means that he feels completely at home in New Britain and with anyone and everyone who works alongside him. He knows the value of work, and the cost of hope.

Q. What is your biggest challenge as a writer? What part of the job do you enjoy most?

A. My biggest challenge and the part of the job I love the most are the same: letting the reader feel what itís like to be someone they otherwise might never think of.

Q. What are you working on now?

A. Iím finishing a summer novel about a small Ohio town on Lake Erie and an eighteen-year-old girl who disappears. In tone and landscape it reminds me somewhat of Snow Angels, meaning itís very sad but has some hard-won light at its core. I guess itís like many of my books in that itís about how we find the hope to go on.

And by the way, thanks for reading my books. I know theyíre not always easy and not always fun, but I do hope theyíre true.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. Why does Manny choose to keep the restaurant open through the snowstorm? Would he have made the same decision if it hadnít been the restaurantís last day?

  2. How well do you think Darden Restaurants handled closing this branch of the Red Lobster? Could they have made the transition easier for the employees?

  3. When Jacquie shows up for work, sheís angry with him for his glib response, saying, ďWhy do you have to go and make a joke about it? I donít know if you know this, but a lot of us only came in because of you.Ē Why canít Manny see the loyalty heís aroused in some of his staff?

  4. When the mother of the sick toddler demands the phone number of Mannyís boss, he gives it to her even though his staff doesnít understand—or approve. Have you ever had to do something that you felt was the right thing to do even if the people around you did not? Discuss how that made you feel.

  5. Manny seems to have a soft spot for Coach Kashynski. Is it just sentimentality, or is there a deeper reason?

  6. After buying the earrings for Deena, he thinks, ďSometimes itís not the thought that counts, just the present.Ē Do you agree or disagree?

  7. Despite the likelihood that no one will ever use the bathrooms again—the building will likely even be demolished—Manny cleans them up after the busload of sick passengers departs. What does his decision say about him?

  8. Do you think that Jacquie and Mannyís relationship was doomed to failure, or do you think he could have done something differently? Do you think Manny and Deena will stay together? Why or why not?

  9. Manny couldnít bring himself to steal the marlin even though he defied company policy in giving away the lighthouse glasses. What, in his mind, is the difference between the two transgressions?

  10. What does it say about the way businesses operate today when a man as hardworking and conscientious as Manny is treated as if he were negligible?