Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Review of Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O'Nan and Thoughts About Nagging Books

The Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan is one of those books I’ve been meaning to read forever. I would see it on library or bookstore shelves and say, “Self, you should read this one. You love Stewart O’Nan.” But I have passed it by consistently in favor of frontlist titles.

When I was in New York earlier this month, I found it for an obscenely low price at Strand Book Store, so I bought it. Crazy! And rather than having it perch precariously on the top of my leaning stack until the end of time, I decided to take on this 146 page book immediately.  Crazy again! I’m just trying to do the unexpected in my reading life.

O’Nan has made a name for himself for writing about small moments in working class New England, and this novella is no exception. This story follows Manny, a manager at a Red Lobster in a failing mall in Connecticut.  He is surprised when the corporate office unexpectedly decides to close his restaurant, shuffling him to an Assistant Manager position at a nearby Olive Garden restaurant. The reader walks step-by-step with Manny on his last shift at the Red Lobster, on a snowy night in December.

If you’re looking for something with a plot, turn away now. But what is remarkable about this book is that as Manny grapples with personnel issues and fills ketchup bottles and mops the floor, O’Nan paints a portrait of such palpable, deep longing for meaning in a meaningless situation. Manny has deep pride in his work, and he wants that work to matter – to his employees, to the corporate office, and to his customers. He wants real relationships with the people he works with, and he wants them to want real relationships with him. Ultimately, he craves connection and relevance, even if all evidence suggests that he resembles a lobster in a tank, with claws taped and fate sealed.

I have read four other O’Nan titles: Snow Angels, Songs for the Missing, The Odds, and Emily, Alone.  Songs for the Missing is my favorite. It’s topic? You guessed it: grief. O’Nan does have a new novel out this year called West of Sunset. That one is about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last years, and that topic doesn’t particularly interest me. Let me know if you read it.

I have to say that it feels great to have finished a book that has called to me for years. The cosmic list of unread books nags at me, as does the realization that I will never be able to get to them all. Perhaps I will create a 2016 reading challenge called Get Off My Back, Nagging Books!

What books do you never seem to get around to reading?

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