Director of the Bridge Program; Interim core faculty, BA program
The amazing Nancy Zafris (whose books you should buy) originally introduced me to Stewart O’Nan’s work, and I’ve not been disappointed. O’Nan is a master of two things that I find especially helpful in studying the art of writing fiction: understatement and back story.
The story is simple enough. It takes place at a Red Lobster, spanning the last night before the restaurant closes for good. We follow Manny (the manager) as he goes through the motions of his job for the last time: opening the restaurant, negotiating the hurried moments before the first customers arrive, getting through lunch and dinner rush, and undertaking the ritual of shutting down for the night. We also closely follow Manny as he says goodbye to most of his staff — including the server he’s in love with.
Through it all, O’Nan uses beautiful understatement. The emotional moments of letting go of a decade-long job are given voice through the everyday objects and actions of the restaurant — anger in an employee who slashes leather jackets before leaving work for the last time, nostalgia in Manny as he imagines keeping the marlin that hangs on the wall, and the combination of hope and hopelessness as he gives employees lottery tickets as a parting gift. All this is told with the restraint of a narrator who keeps his cards close to his chest, who wants to do a good job, even as he knows that he and his staff are expendable.
O’Nan is also a master at back story — sharing the background details without making the interior monologue clunky or contrived (one of my pet peeves in fiction). Slowly, we learn of the narrator’s love triangle, the baby that’s on the way, and the loss of love. Slowly, we learn the histories of employees, and slowly, we come to understand just how much the Red Lobster means to Manny. In the end, we come to see that, while the narrator seems to be losing the love of his life, the love that matters most in the story may not be the girl but the restaurant.
A beautiful story.