It’s not surprising to me that I loved Steward O’Nan’s Last Night at the Lobster; he’s one of my favorite writers, after all, and this books stands out for me among the many books of his I love. It’s not only a book with a lot of heart; it’s also a book that is timely–as 2009 is said to be the year that many in retail and service lose their jobs, the year that many malls and shops and restaurants turn out their lights for good.

On the surface it’s a book about a day in the life of Manny, a Red Lobster manager whose restaurant is closing. Beneath, there is much more going on. Manny is a good guy who genuinely loves his job and tries to do well by the folks who work for him. He’s far from perfect, though. His girlfriend is pregnant and he cannot commit to her. Not because he doesn’t want to do the right thing, but because he loves another.

That beloved is one of his staff, a beautiful waitress, who along with a few others of the motley crew, shows up for the Lobster’s last night–not because she cares about her job, but because she cares about Manny.

I’d venture to say that anyone who has ever worked minimum wage, worked service industry, worked retail, worked in a restaurant, will find themselves within this book. You will understand the frustration, the ribbing, the improbable love. You will remember customers who were a pain in the ass, the dysfunctional relationships between coworkers. You will remember the times you laughed with the odd-ball group of people who became family to you.

From a merely human standpoint, this is a book about yearning–hope for a more beautiful future, desire to relive the past. For me, it was the perfect way to spend New Year’s Eve: surveying the past, living in the present, and looking forward.

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