Adrift in the sea of portion control

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By Pat Wellington

Author Stewart O’Nan has sometimes been labeled “the bard of the working class.” And in this 146-page gem of a novel the hero is a 35-year-old manager of a Red Lobster restaurant tucked at the end of a hardscrabble mall. It is five days before Christmas and headquarters has determined that Manny De Leon’s place is not meeting the numbers and must close.

The action takes place on Dec. 20, during the last 12 hours of operation. Manny swallows hard as he tries to envision the Lobster’s demise but is determined to go out with a bang and show headquarters their mistake.

But Manny’s dream of perfection is not to be; a blizzard, a near mutinous staff, and employee no shows see to that. Even though the company does not license franchises, Manny thinks of the restaurant as his.

This is a love story unlike any other I’ve read. Although Manny still yearns for his former girlfriend Jacquie, a waitress, and wonders what botched the romance, his real devotion is not to her but to the Lobster.

“More than anyone else Manny DeLeon belongs here. As general manager it’s his responsibility to open, a task he’s come to enjoy.” So this last day he will walk the minefield of a winter storm, disgruntled employees about to lose their jobs, and difficult customers like the over-parenting mother who allows her toddler to stuff himself until he vomits. And despite everything, he will not close early.

Through it all Manny is cool and efficient. When a customer finds a bit of plastic wrap in his food “Manny’s off, handling the situation personally, taking the offending plate with him – straight out of the old intern manual he used to study like a Bible when he was just breaking in.”

Through Manny we come to understand the warmth and comfort the restaurant provides this somewhat lonely man. When he checks the ice machines and Frialators he almost caresses them. And when an elderly couple enjoys their meal and finish every bite, Manny finds himself “inordinately proud that they both cleaned their plates.”

Yet our hero is wise enough to realize that his slavish loyalty is unappreciated by a company that treats him indifferently. He will be transferred to the nearest Olive Garden and reduced in rank to assistant manager.

In the closing pages, as he starts up his ancient Regal, he is tempted to go back into the Lobster and take the blue marlin with the glass eyes hanging by the front door – as a memento. But his natural integrity talks him out of it.

This is a beautifully crafted story that seems to beg the question – how does a man keep on going when his very best was not quite good enough.

Pat Wellington is a retired English professor, freelance writer, and faculty member of On Top of the World’s Master the Possibilities, who shares her passion for books with others.