Nancy Corbett


Last Night at the Lobster

by Stewart O'Nan

I always wonder what it will take to be published. The writer's groups and workshop leaders have traditionally been so discouraging. When I outlined the plot of my unpublished YA novel, Giving It Over, someone piped up and said that no one wants to read what it was like in the olden days. The story takes place in 1973, the year abortion became legal, and deals with the subject of teen pregnancy.

Yesterday, I had one of my classic pajama days, lots of tea, lots of cat time, pajamas, maybe a snack and a book. I recently read a review about a new book by Stewart O'Nan. I hadn't read anything by him, so I looked for him in the library and grabbed a copy of Last Night at the Lobster. The book seemed a perfect pajama day book, something that I could read in a day. And this is what I read yesterday.

Last Night at the Lobster was engaging, the handful of characters were well-developed and the pacing was perfect. Yet the story is not a big one, no one's earth is shattered. It reminded me of the sad clown, or Carol Burnett's washerwoman. Last Night at the Lobster is the story of a manager's last day at a closing Red Lobster restaurant. It's just before Christmas, and the restaurant should be packed with last minute shoppers, but a blizzard reduces the dinner clientele to a forlorn couple making their way to an unknown destination. The characters are restaurant employees and customers. The story takes place in this single day.

For Manny, the manager, the story is one of a man who has no control of anything in his life. He's an anonymous cog in a corporate wheel, dedicated, conscientious, and hard-working. With his employees, he's fair, thoughtful and generous. Every action Manny takes is an effort to do what is right, and the result is nothing. If I were to sum up the story's message, it is that integrity is worthless in this day. The corporation doesn't see Manny, the employees don't respect him, the customers represent the ugliness of American entitlement and fling at him their outrage for every minor transgression. Yet he conducts himself with professionalism to the end.

An enjoyable read, but, as a writer, I find myself thinking, if I'd written this book, the workshop leaders and writer's group participants and anyone else I deem to share my writing with, would say, yes, but... Yes. But no one cares about a manager at a Red Lobster. Well, that's rather the point, though, isn't it? Every contact I've had with agents sand blasts the same message into my forehead. The book must be marketable. It must be something an agent sees as a money-making proposition. It must be a worthy project that a publishing house wants to take on, must generate enthusiasm and excitement. How was Lobster pitched? How does a book like this get into print? Engaging as it is, I can't imagine a agent or a publisher doing cartwheels at the thought of how many copies this would sell.

Lobster isn't trying to be a blockbuster novel; it isn't trying to be anything other than what it is, a pleasurable read on a Sunday afternoon. We all have dozens of stories we could tell about endings of things that were destined to be short-lived. But who would publish them? Lobster is a story of our time. It addresses the disposable mindset of American culture and may even cause readers to consider that there are dramas playing out in all kinds of unsuspected places. The subject matter is commonplace. We've all seen, if not eaten at a Red Lobster. I even know someone who managed one a long while back. The recognizable signposts, Red Lobster, Olive Garden, shopping mall, all ground us in the story's familiar setting. I found myself filling with gratitude that I'd escaped the horrors of working in food service or retail. But most of all, I found myself, once again, wondering about the wheels that turn the publishing industry.

"We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams..." Arthur O'Shaughnessy


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