A rueful mood piece from prolific, eclectic O’Nan (The Good Wife, 2005, etc.) about the closing of a chain restaurant.
On a snowy morning just a few days before Christmas, general manager Manny DeLeon opens the Red Lobster in New Britain, Conn., for the last time. Corporate ownership is closing this branch near a dying mall, and though Manny is moving to the Olive Garden in Bristol (with a demotion to assistant manager), he can take only four people with him. Unsurprisingly, most of the understandably pissed-off, soon-to-be-unemployed workers don’t bother to show for the last shift. O’Nan paints a vivid picture of the world of minimum-wage labor, where people have little incentive to be responsible or reliable. Manny is both, scrambling to keep the restaurant running smoothly in the middle of a blizzard, even though it’s the last day and no one cares but him. Personally, he’s less upright. He doesn’t want to marry his pregnant girlfriend Deena and still carries a torch for Jacquie, a waitress who’s refused to come to the Olive Garden because their affair is over. There’s hardly any plot here, just the frantic rush to serve lunch—O’Nan’s depiction of the complex organization of meal preparation and service is the best since Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential—and the long wait through a sparsely populated dinner to shut the place down forever. Customers from hell and surly staff interact in a dance of clashing personalities that would be a marvelous comedy of manners if the overall tone weren’t so sad. In his mid-30s, Manny is plagued by regret over Jacquie and not terribly optimistic about his future. O’Nan hews to a neglected literary tradition by focusing his sympathetic attention on people with few options. He offers no political message, merely the reminder that blue-collar lives are as charged with moral quandaries and professional difficulties as those of their better-dressed, more affluent fellow Americans.
Very low-key, but haunting and quietly provocative.