There are so many good and positive reasons to write a blog, especially those reasons that dance around books and reading, because how else would I have heard about Stewart O'Nan, a writer whose profile seems almost non-existent here in the UK (forgive me if I am wrong about that...very possible living in the back of beyond) and who I am completely mystified about. I am sure saying as much here will supply all the answers from 'out there'.
Why hadn't I heard of a writer whose first novel, Snow Angels, was published in 1994, and who has written another heaven knows how many novels, until someone mentioned him here in comments...
Why have I never seen Stewart O'Nan's books on the shelves here in the UK..
Are Stewart O'Nan's books even published here in the UK...
Isn't a 'bard of the working class' the sort of writer I would want to know about...
Dear me, where have I been all this time...
I had bought a used copy of Last Night at the Lobster, following two endorsements in comments on our reading list for Lesley-Ann, sourcing the only available copy in the UK it would seem (from You Know Where). I settled down to read it in those balmy few days post Port Eliot Festival, when I was fit for the deckchair and not a lot else and it couldn't have been a more perfect choice, a complete contrast in subject matter to the discussions in the dovegreyreader tent over that weekend...or was it, because slowly come common denominators and some connections emerged.
Manny DeLeon, is the manager of the Red Lobster, a failing diner in the remotest corner of a New England shopping mall about to be closed down by its giant corporation owners. Numbers are down and just four days before Christmas Manny must negotiate the diner's final day with a depleted and very disgruntled staff who gradually make their way into work through the mother of all snow storms. They are resentful, depressed and disillusioned, and the animosity is palpable as Manny starts his day-long round of soothing-over and placating. The snow outside is treacherous and slippery as will this day be for poor Manny to negotiate.
Manny is slowly revealed by thought and deed rather than description as he tries to hold all this together. One of those who tries too hard...we all know them. The all-encompassing work ethic, the need to please everyone, even the corporation who have really done the dirty; but Manny will refuse to let standards slip, even on this final day after which he will accept demotion and a dent to his pride as he and just five of the forty-four staff members move to jobs at a neighbouring restaurant.
There are tangled relationships for Manny to deal with too, as per any close-knit workforce. Animosity between members of staff, jealousies and frequent spats, life intruding on work, as well as his own affair with a waitress, and a pregnant girlfriend at home, so plenty of uncertainty and inner turmoil as Manny regularly treks out into the drifting snow and tries to clear a path to his diner.
This is not shouty 'look-at-me' fiction, more a quiet but devastating delineation of the unseen, the unnoticed. In fact I couldn't help but think here is the Martin Parr of the fiction world, illuminating the corners that others might prefer to ignore, but which need to be lit up just the same. And, like Martin Parr's photographs, there is much more going on than first appears as Stewart O'Nan creates an atmosphere around a visual image that had me walking through the Red Lobster (side-stepping the mess that ghastly child had made) as we attempted to calm the customers from hell. Manny was way better at it than I would have been..
This is indeed social documentary fiction, ordinary lives, ordinary events easily dismissed as unimportant, except those events are central and life-changing to those experiencing them. Boredom is in the gaze of the reader I thought as I recalled my discussion with Martin Parr about the value judgements that lay behind those Boring Postcards. Clearly all that looking has given me transferable skills that can be applied to fiction, and there is not an ounce of boring in this deeply perceptive and observant little book, 140 pages that pack a bigger punch than all those 600 page tomes.
To the very last emptying of the very last bin, Manny does what he has to do..
'The bathrooms are clean and he takes care of the worst of the foyer and the hall carpet with the push sweeper...there's no point in vacuuming or even sweeping up because they are going to tear the place apart...The coatrack's empty, ...the staff schedule for tomorrow blank. As a tribute he leaves today's specials on the chalkboard. He boxes the mismatched ornaments in their nests of brittle tissue paper and unplugs the string of lights, coiling it around his elbow like a roadie. The tinsel he pitches.'
And whilst that may sound very run of the mill stuff, by the time I had reached this point towards the end of the book, I was there wanting to hug poor long-suffering Manny and tell him what a good job he had done, because in keeping with his nature there is no way Manny would have seen that for himself.
So there you have it, Last Night at the Lobster, my first Stewart O'Nan novel and no surprises that it certainly won't be my last. The books are coming to me from all over the US via You Know Where ...Wish You Were Here, The Names of the Dead, The Night Country, The Good Wife, Emily Alone, Songs for the Missing, The Odds, A Prayer for the Dying .
Snow Angels was the second one to arrive and I have finished that with a real buzz of excitement about it, and about reading the others. Hooray for new (to me) authors and new reading trails and to all of you for telling me about them.