The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Globe Life

February 8, 2008

Book review: ‘Lobster’ a winning read, claws down

Through their explorations of characters’ lives both interior and exterior, some books capture life’s bittersweet moments with such clarity and intimacy that they give one pause. Stewart O’Nan’s slim novella, “Last Night at the Lobster,” is just such a work.

The protagonist is Manny, manager of a Red Lobster restaurant. He’s a hard worker and a good guy. Sure, he sometimes gets high before he starts his day, and he carries a torch for a co-worker even though his girlfriend is pregnant with their child. But he’s a professional. He’s proud of his shabby restaurant. He treats his sometimes undeserving staff with respect. He strives to make his customers happy, even if their kids are monsters.

The entire story takes place in one day, the last this particular Lobster will be open for business. Next week, Manny moves on to the Olive Garden. But for now, as a blizzard gradually envelopes the town, he’s determined to stay open this final night, even as his employees desert him one by one and the customers dwindle.

There’s an undercurrent of suspense throughout the book, one grounded in real life. As the storm worsens, will Manny really stay open to the bitter end? Will he reconcile with his co-worker and leave his girlfriend? Is there a winner among the lottery tickets he bought on his lunch break?

“Last Night at the Lobster” has a decidedly elegiac tone, but it’s not without humor — the banter of the Lobster’s workers is familiar to anyone who’s ever held a job. And although the characters and their lives seem everyday, the book’s narrative language is anything but. Cars “sniff for parking spots” in the mall lot, a kid is “hanging off his mother’s neck like a possum,” the lobster tank has a “water-torture dribble” sound to it. The writer in me envies O’Nan’s skill.

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