Last Night at the Lobster
by Stewart O’Nan
First published in the United States in 2007, Last Night at the Lobster gets an overdue international release. The titular Red Lobster, a chain restaurant outlet in New Britain, Connecticut, is about to close for good: “Tonight, when [Manny DeLeon] locks the doors, all but five [employees] will lose their jobs”, including Manny himself. The decision was made at corporate headquarters, which might explain the atrocious timing. Christmas is five days away, which makes Manny envy Bill Murray in Scrooged (1988) “and how everything works out for him”. Manny “can’t deny he’d like that” even as he knows it won’t happen. In any case, New Britain is not suited to festive cheer. The opening sounds like Christmas after an apocalypse: “Mall traffic on a gray winter’s day, stalled. Midmorning and the streetlights are still on, weakly. Scattered flakes drift down like ash.” O’Nan’s short novel traces the quiet desperation, and joyful moments, of the restaurant’s final 24 hours: from Manny’s enduring adoration for ex-girlfriend Jacqui to his future life with Deena, pregnant with their first child. The characters are tenderly drawn without being sentimental. Through vivid dialogue and precise description, the novel evokes the tedium of hard work without forgetting its genuine consolations. This is a great little book by a great big writer.