The beating heart of a lifeless town

Times Staff Writer

Eleven years ago, with three books under his belt, Stewart O’Nan, then 35, was included in Granta’s list of 20 best American novelists under 40. It was an incredible list that included Lorrie Moore, Jeffrey Eugenides, Chris Offutt, Jonathan Franzen, Mona Simpson, David Guterson, Elizabeth McCracken, to name a few, all of whom have gone on to write lots of really fine fiction. It was the kind of list that made you wonder what was in the Kool-Aid, so to speak, in 1996.

O’Nan has not rested on his laurels, giving us eight novels and two works of nonfiction (on his beloved Red Sox, written with Stephen King, and on the deadly 1944 circus fire in Hartford, Conn.) since then. It is alarmingly difficult to find a negative review of any of his books.

An engineer in his prewriting life, O’Nan is often praised for his well-constructed novels in which ordinary people are placed in extraordinary situations, for his unforgettable renditions of working folks, his respect for his characters, his clean lines and elegant accumulation of detail, his mastery of vernacular and his rueful combination of horror and comedy (so like his favorite writers, Flannery O’Connor and King). It’s almost too good to be true -- enough to make any self-respecting critic suspicious.


Fortunately, writing is one profession in which sleeping your way to the top is pretty much impossible. That leaves plagiarism, but O’Nan’s voice is so wholly his own that we can’t knock him there either.

No, he’s just pure talent, and, like Manny, the main character in O’Nan’s new novel, “Last Night at the Lobster,” he’s not afraid of hard work. Manny, 35, is a manager at a Red Lobster restaurant on a strip near a Connecticut mall.

Like so many of the author’s previous books, the novel is set in winter. There’s a blizzard on the horizon, and it’s the restaurant’s last night before the faceless parent company closes it down for not generating enough profit. In better days, the restaurant’s staff numbered 44; only five will go with Manny to a nearby Olive Garden, owned by the same company.

Manny feels sentimental about the place and the people with whom he’s worked. From the moment he opens up the restaurant until closing time on that last day, he thinks fondly about his time there. He’s a good man, conscientious in his work; he takes care, for example, to salt the parking lot and to make sure the customers are treated so well that they’ll want to return. His caring is the raw life force, the sap still running in this Godforsaken landscape.

O’Nan, who is a writer not a preacher, somehow makes this realization bubble up in the reader’s consciousness. In one scene, Manny looks hard at the marlin mounted in the entranceway across from the host stand. “Somewhere under the dust and shellac there must have been a real fish once,” he thinks. “How long ago? He can almost see it swimming, thrashing in water blue as a swimming pool, the last minutes before it was hauled on board.”

O’Nan’s description of the landscape -- the restaurant and the mall -- derives its poetry from the author’s respect for detail. It’s literary without being condescending. “Inside it’s dark as a mine,” he writes of Manny’s first moments of the day. “He props the door open with a rubber stop, then chops on the lights and waits as the panels hopscotch across the kitchen ceiling.”


As in many of the author’s previous novels, characters inhabit a vista so utterly familiar (and very often depressing) that they no longer notice its features. But in Manny’s post-lunch walk to the mall to buy Christmas presents, he is transformed into nothing less than a knight on a quest, a Don Quixote who realizes midway that people are laughing at him because the back of his coat has been slashed by an angry employee whom Manny had to fire.

There’s plenty of drama too. Manny’s girlfriend is pregnant, but he has fallen deeply in love with an employee, who has ended their affair and returned to her boyfriend. We don’t know much about the lives of the other characters, but each meal brings a new cast of characters, and we watch the staff respond to the customers -- some with rage and some with resignation.

A young mother with a toddler who makes a mess of the table, eats everything in sight, then vomits in the entryway creates the biggest nightmare of the day, but there is little room for personal emotions and private dramas.

No, it’s nonstop work, and O’Nan succeeds in making it exhausting but also thrilling. For example, after hours of preparation, when the restaurant finally opens for business, it feels like a curtain going up: “ ‘Here we go,’ Manny says, to himself as much as anyone, and for the very last time he flips the breaker for the neon by the highway, then slides the tab of the plastic CLOSED sign on the front door to the right to let the whole world know they’re open for business.”

O’Nan’s previous novels are a lot noisier in the plot department: A woman on death row tells her story in her last 24 hours (“The Speed Queen”); a sheriff brings an epidemic to his small town in Wisconsin (“A Prayer for the Dying”); a young mother is killed by her husband (“Snow Angels”); a pregnant woman’s husband is sentenced to 25 years to life for murder (“The Good Wife”); and three of five kids riding in a car are killed in a gruesome accident on Halloween (“The Night Country”). “A World Away,” “Wish You Were Here” and “Everyday People” have slightly quieter plots but more elaborate casts of characters.

“Last Night at the Lobster” makes beautiful sense in the span of O’Nan’s writing life: It’s a Zen koan of a book -- Manny’s life in all its integrity echoing out across a wintry mall in a Rust Belt American town.