There comes a point early on in Stewart O’Nan’s novel The Good Wife (2004) when you realize, with dismal certainty, that you aren’t reading the story of a young pregnant woman whose husband is serving twenty-five years to life in prison for a murder he may or may not have committed, but rather, the bloodless story of a woman who waits for her husband for twenty-eight years. It is a novel about marking time, about making ends meet, about a disappointing motherhood, and about a long, unrewarding marriage. An old-school formalist, O’Nan ensures that we really suffer the passage of time alongside the heroine. It’s depressing, but surprisingly compelling.
Last Night at the Lobster is also about a countdown—not decades, but a single afternoon and snowy night, December 20, the last for a Red Lobster in New Britain, Connecticut. Manny, the manager of the restaurant and the hero of the story, is the hardest hit by the closure. Not only has he been reassigned to an Olive Garden and demoted to assistant manager, but he’s about to lose what he’s made for himself at the Lobster: There he wields some small degree of power, finds refuge from loneliness, enjoys the familiarity of daily routine, and moons freely over an ex-girlfriend, a waitress, while avoiding the current one, who’s pregnant with his child.
He’s not unself-conscious about his displaced attachment to the condemned restaurant. “I can’t believe you’re really going to miss this place,” remarks his ex, Jacquie, in the middle of the afternoon.
I can’t believe you won’t, he wants to say, but just shrugs. “I guess I’ve been here too long.”
“I guess so.”
He doesn’t know why this is a joke (it’s a lie, first off), but like all of his exchanges with Jacquie lately, he tries not to analyze it too closely, since it will come to nothing.
They’re just talking.
All that is unsettled in his life comes to a head on this last night—destined for resolution despite Manny’s carefully curated ambivalence. “After tonight,” he predicts in the opening pages, he won’t ever see Jacquie again. “It should be a relief. An ending. Then why does he picture himself begging her at closing to go with him, or does he just need her forgiveness.”
The book ends, ten hours later, where it began: after a slow lunch shift, the hemorrhaging of an already skeletal staff, a blackout, some random acts of violence by vengeful employees, and a pitiful dinner shift. Manny is proficient and dutiful throughout the day, then dissatisfied, his love still unrequited by evening’s end. “He reaches,” the story concludes, “for his seat belt and discovers he’s wearing it, shifts into drive and guides the Regal to the stop sign, signaling as if someone’s behind him.”
O’Nan has a penchant for characters who recall figures in Diane Arbus photos—wide-eyed and gimpy, dreary and pathological; seductive in a roadkill kind of way. Manny is no exception. He’s propelled forward by virtue of momentum, his underlying passivity less biochemical than the upshot of having been beaten to a pulp by life. It is, sadly, rather too easy to dismiss him—and, even more sadly, something of a challenge to slog through this short book. The time that’s being marked in this story is discrete (exactly one day), hopeless (there’s no chance of the restaurant reviving, no chance of Manny fixing his love life), and essentially uninteresting.
Disappointingly, the affair between Jacquie and Manny never quite leaves the page. The few elliptical references to the enormous love that consumes Manny’s thoughts fall flat: “He wants to talk to her like they used to, curled into each other under the covers, his lips so close to her ear all he had to do was whisper. She’d laugh and push him away and they’d clinch again, trading secrets from when they were little kids, even the few memories he has of his mother.” Ultimately, the relationship seems like a narrative device—how Manny invests himself in precarious dreams—a symbol of futility rather than evidence of it.
Over the course of ten novels, O’Nan has worked with extreme, even grotesque, story lines: a small town ravaged by fire and plague in A Prayer for the Dying (1999), a murderess on death row in The Speed Queen (1997), teenagers killed in a car accident in The Night Country (2003), the Vietnam War in The Names of the Dead (1996), offsetting the sensationalism with a strong vernacular. Through his choices of voice, tense, and structure, he aims above all for emotional resonance. But in Last Night at the Lobster, he abandons the kind of dramatic premise that has served him before, loses his bearings at depicting his character’s emotional lives, and leaves us with a dingy story about clock-watching.
Literature promises that almost anything, no matter how quotidian, will reveal something fascinating when dissected. O’Nan offers a stunning example of this technique in A Prayer for the Dying, in his account of a coroner meticulously preparing plague-ridden bodies for burial. The blow-by-blow detailing of Manny opening the restaurant, running through his mental checklist of managerial concerns, hardly compares: “Walking along the line, he passes his hand like a magician over the Frialators and the grill to make sure they’re off. The ice machine’s on and full—good.”
Whether or not you respond to O’Nan’s brand of American vernacular, his deadpan style, and his elaborate premises, he remains an honest conceptualist. And more often than not, his experiments work. Emily Dickinson wrote, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant . . . / The truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind.” The notion of slanted truth is a fabulously apt description of O’Nan’s approach to storytelling. And yet, in the writing of Last Night at the Lobster, he eschewed both slant and dazzle.
Minna Proctor is the author of Do You Hear What I Hear? Religious Calling, the Priesthood, and My Father (Viking, 2005).