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Last Night at the Lobster (O'Nan)

Last Night at the Lobster
Stewart O'Nan, 2007
Penguin Group USA
160 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780143114420


Summary
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. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Birth—February 4, 1961
Where—Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA
Education—B.S., Boston University; M.F.A., Cornell
Currently—lives in Avon, Connecticut


Stewart O'Nan grew up 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.

Extras
From a 2008 interview with Barnes & Noble:

• 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 collecto — coins, books, records, baseball cards. (Bio and interview from Barnes & Noble.)



Book Reviews
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.
Nathaniel Rich - New York Times


Set on the last day of business of a Connecticut Red Lobster, this touching novel by the author of Snow Angels and A Prayer for the Dying tells 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.
Publishers Weekly


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.
Library Journal


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.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
1. Why does Manny choose to keep the restaurant open through the snowstorm? Would he have made the same decision if it hadn’t been the restaurant’s 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, she’s angry with him for his glib response, saying, “Why do you have to go and make a joke about it? I don’t know if you know this, but a lot of us only came in because of you.” Why can’t Manny see the loyalty he’s aroused in some of his staff?

4. When the mother of the sick toddler demands the phone number of Manny’s boss, he gives it to her even though his staff doesn’t 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, “Sometimes it’s not the thought that counts, just the present.” 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 Manny’s 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 couldn’t 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?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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