Mandahla: Last Night at the Lobster Reviewed

Stewart O'Nan's latest novel opens flawlessly with a description of a mall parking lot in wintery Connecticut: "The turning lane waits for the green arrow above to blink on, and a line of salted cars takes a left into the mall entrance, splitting as they sniff for parking spots." Off in a distant corner is a Red Lobster, with a Buick Regal parked in back, where a man sits for a minute, getting slightly stoned as he contemplates his last night at the Lobster. The last night for manager Manny DeLeon is December 20--the restaurant is being closed by corporate, Manny is being downgraded to assistant manager and moved to an Olive Garden, and he can take only four employees with him. A blizzard has just hit town, customers are few, but Manny is conscientious and loyal, and wants this night to be perfect, as perfect as he has tried to make every night.

As we follow Manny preparing to open--starting the soups, checking the temperature in the walk-in, changing the oil in the Frialators, greeting Ty, the cook, and Eddie, who sweeps and preps--we meet a man who has pride in his work and respect for his employees. Weighing on him as he sets up is his just-ended involvement with Jacquie, a waitress, and his difficult relationship with his pregnant girlfriend, Deena. It's also his first Christmas without his beloved abuelita, his grandmother, another loss that burdens him.

Manhandling the old snowblower in the parking lot--why? who cares? but Manny does. "Following along, blinking and sniffling, shuffling to keep up, he thinks [about] why he fell for Jacquie. Losing his grandmother and the only home he'd known, he needed something to cling to. But then, why not Deena? Why not Deena now? . . . He thinks with a sudden weariness that he doesn't love her enough, and probably never will."

Compact and intense, Last Night at the Lobster is a portrait of a good man on his last nerve, a man we used to call, and still want to, the backbone of the country. Manny takes pride in a job well done; he has compassion for his employees and his customers; he has a broken heart and soul, framed by O'Nan's stark depiction of the dying mall--fluorescent lights shining coldly on desultory shoppers, Zales, Penney, Finest Formals. A bleak portrait, yet one with hope, because we believe in Manny, and in his decency, even while he's in despair.--Marilyn Dahl

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