I worked at Borders for just under five years, and though I knew that it was an evil corporate giant, I loved that job so much that I was unwilling to give it up even after I found a “real” job. There were bad days – nine times out of ten due to an asshole customer – but I will always consider Borders my favorite job. The day I found out we were closing, I cried for hours. I couldn't even stick with it because I knew it would be one of the hardest things I’ve ever gone through. I know I’m in the extreme minority, but it felt like the liquidation company was taking a piece of me. The sense of finality that comes with the closing of a store, as employees drop like flies and fixing errors begins to feel futile, is bizarre and devastating and freeing at the same time.
Stewart O’Nan does a wonderful job capturing that feeling in Last Night at the Lobster.
The novella describes the last day of business for a Connecticut Red Lobster, closed by corporate headquarters due to inadequate sales. The narrative centers around Manny, the manager with a pregnant girlfriend at home, lingering feelings for a waitress who has ended things, and a myriad belligerent and broken-in staff. He opens the restaurant as though it were business as usual, struggles with waitresses and line cooks who don’t feel like showing up for their last day, and organizes the bickering staff that has shown up. Manny is disoriented by the restaurant’s closing – he feels awkward wishing his staff final goodbyes, remains determined to stay locked in his routines, vaguely relieved to be freed of the inconveniences. He offers an angry customer a comment card knowing that it will only be read by the waitress who plans to prank call her in the middle of the night. The customer service in him refuses to die, even when it isn't needed or when it doesn't make sense.
There’s not a lot of meat to this slim book, but it touched a nerve with me. I’ve also worked in a restaurant and I understand the nuances that O’Nan has folded into his story – feuds between servers and hostesses, the muscle memory-driven routine of chopping vegetables and wiping down tables, the miniature adrenaline rushes that accompany the battles with aggressive customers. This is a simple, lovely-but-unsentimental look at the beauty of the mundane.