Monday, May 19, 2008

Last Night At The Lobster

Time again for another book review, this one still in hardcover. It's LAST NIGHT AT THE LOBSTER by Stewart O'Nan, a writer I knew only as Stephen King's co-author of FAITHFUL, a non-fiction book about the Boston Red Sox and the pennant race to the 2004 World Series. I may someday read that, but until then, I'll have to be content with reviewing his latest work. Here it is.


O’Nan’s short novel, a finalist for the 2008 L.A. Times’ Book Prize, is a brisk read that manages to run out of dramatic steam a little more than halfway into its story. The set-up is simple: Darden Restaurants, Inc., the corporate owner of Red Lobster and Olive Garden, has decided to close its still-fairly successful Red Lobster in New Britain, Connecticut, five days before Christmas. Manny DeLeon, the general manager, is in charge of motivating his outgoing staff and staying open through a lunch and dinner service before shuttering the doors forever. Waitresses, a bartender, a hostess, and a kitchen staff full of shady loners all come together on this last day of operation, seen through Manny’s p.o.v. A sub-plot revolving around Manny’s infatuation with ex-lover and current employee Jacquie fills the gaps of action on the serving floor, and serves as the predictable denouement, as well.

There is a lot to like in this book, especially O’Nan’s rapid-fire delivery of character quirks and the realistic snap of his dialogue. Told in present-tense, there is an immediacy to every moment, unfolding in its undetermined way, hinting that anything can happen during this snow-covered day at the New England Red Lobster located across from the big shopping mall.

The problem, however, with this kind of a “concept” novel is that once the characters have been established and the ever-changing ticking-clock scenario is set in motion, there is really nothing left to compel the reader to finish the book. Yes, the Manny character has complexities, but they’re just not interesting enough to sustain even 146 pages. By a third of the way into the novel, the reader gets that Manny is devoted to the restaurant while simultaneously feeling betrayed by the company that employs him; that EVERY old person who comes into the place reminds Manny of his dead abuelita; that he has a baby on the way, but not with the woman he obsessively desires; that some of the employees will stay until the end of their shift, while others will leave before the night is over; and that the night will end and The Olive Garden will be Manny’s new professional home. So, knowing all of this early on, it becomes difficult to become very invested in the rest of the novel, particularly when all it really does is repeat these same dramatic and emotional beats over and over until the last page.

O'Nan's details of how a restaurant runs, from the back of the walk-in freezer to the front of the house, are amazingly accurate and real. If you’ve ever spent any time in food service, there are moments that will definitely resonate. Whether it’s the waitresses dealing with overbearing, oblivious customers, or the bartender lifting top shelf booze bottles and stashing them by the dumpsters when the manager isn’t looking, those of us who have worked in restaurants will recognize these people, these attitudes and these stories instantly. Perhaps the recognition will even be accompanied by the same bit of nostalgia that Manny displays for a job that kind of sucks, a support staff that is less than supportive, and a corporate boss who is only looking at its bottom line. Those warm fuzzy feelings are of course patently false, psychotic and illogical, yet are unmistakable and unavoidable, if you’ve ever set up your own station or had to yell, “Order up!” Whatever its faults (and there are more than a few), this book captures that twisted reality, in all its grease, grime and gratuities.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Paint It Black

My first review of a fairly new novel (there will be more, I promise), written by one of my favorite contemporary authors, Janet Fitch.


Janet Fitch, the author of WHITE OLEANDER, is a mistress of poetic prose and conductor of the wrenching, heartfelt emotional toil that she flourishes on her female characters. Her dialogue is so believable, rich and staggeringly real that it is hard to imagine that these characters exist only on the page and not out in the world. The Los Angeles she envisions in her novels is bruised and dented; a new model car with the paint already chipped and the interior gutted, but the radio is still intact and it’s playing nothing but memories.

Her second novel takes place in this L.A., shortly after the tragic killing of John Lennon in the New York of 1980. Josie Tyrell is a punker, a transplant from Bakersfield with a level of self-loathing that rivals any of Carl Jung’s most debased patients. A part-time nude model and occasional student-film actress, Josie lives the life of a free spirit, a young woman tied down by nothing other than her own limitations. When her boyfriend kills himself in a Twentynine Palms motel room, the fragility and aimlessness of her life is exposed, leading to a journey of self-examination and eventual transformation.

Her underground world of clubs and unabashed excess collides with the world of piano recitals and cultured restraint when she meets Michael Faraday, a painter with a complicated past. That past he shrouds in misdirection and half-answers, exposing an intimate yet ultimately falsified version of himself to the trusting, loving Josie. It is only upon his death, and after his depressed, suffering girlfriend enmeshes herself into the lives of Michael’s family, that new versions replace the old. Secrets are revealed, lies are unmasked, half-truths are shoved under the hot white glare of full exposure.

The most intriguing aspect of the novel is the complicated, oftentimes nasty and violent relationship between the two most grief-stricken survivors Michael leaves behind. From the venomous phone call Michael’s mother, Meredith, has with Josie shortly after the young man’s suicide, to the co-dependent relationship they cultivate as short-term roommates, every interaction between the two women is heady and filled with danger.

Meredith Loewy, concert pianist and possible psychopath, is one of the richest, most compelling and intriguing antagonists I’ve read since John Steinbeck’s Cathy Ames in EAST OF EDEN. She is at once sympathetic and completely despicable, a woman with more pain to bear than she is capable of carrying on her own. Josie becomes her crutch, as well as a substitute child, there to simultaneously remind Meredith of the son she once had and the son she no longer possesses. This description of her, from halfway through the novel, illustrates the majesty of her beauty, as well as the crushing magnitude of her affliction:

“The green eyes, their huge startled expression, the length and curl of the lashes, the slow flick of wide eyelid. The ache of loss, profound as if someone had gone into her bones and scooped out the marrow.”

The novel is filled with this same amazing detail and language, rhythm and mood. The overall tone is a tad bleak -- which is unavoidable when dealing with suicide and its effects on those left behind as its subject -- and at times I found it difficult to emerge from the haze of depression and disillusionment that permeates the novel. That said, it was very much an experiential read for me, sucking me straight into the inner torment of Josie and her struggles to make sense of Michael’s death and her own, out of control, life.

“She had to stay in the icy place, the numb place, and their warmth threatened to melt her just when she needed the cold” is a perfect example of this depth of sorrow and feeling that drives Fitch’s novel. At times, Josie’s suffering is almost unbearable to the reader. But I think that may just be the point. It forces you to engage, rather then look away, challenges you to walk four hundred pages in the combat boots of a girl most people would normally ignore on the street. Josie is a force to be reckoned with, and one to be compassionate towards, to find empathy for.

In this particular passage, a favorite of mine, there are echoes of Virginia Woolf’s TO THE LIGHTHOUSE:

“Nobody knew anyone else’s private world. In the end, they were all alone as inmates on death row, side by side. Sometimes you could get a look at one another with a little pocket mirror, cell to cell, but that was all.”

What Fitch manages to do in this novel is give us a look into the private worlds of Josie Tyrell and Meredith Loewy (and even, to some degree, Michael Faraday) with a tool much more powerful than a mere pocket mirror. She illuminates their interiors with a klieg light, offering us an effulgent gaze into their very essence, while being mindful to pull back a little – just a little – in order to allow the characters to remain at their heightened level of verisimilitude. Leaving their realism intact. And their resonance alive.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Paper & Ashes

My favorite simile of the day comes courtesy of PAINT IT BLACK:

"Birds flew across the windshield like a page of music."

Janet Fitch's second novel will be the next book review I post, but until then, here are two short, older reviews of books I count among my favorites.


The BEST book I have ever read. An amazing, overwhelmingly emotional and masterful story of a young man's impoverished, hard and oppressive life. Tracking the author's life from the age of 2 to 17, memoirist and Pulitzer-Prize winning Frank McCourt brings us directly into this world, face-to-face with the dirt, the poverty and the struggle of a family trying to survive. What's so stunning about this book is not that the author survived such a traumatic upbringing to actually tell his tale, but that he remembers and relates the episodes of his childhood from the perspective of a child. So even though we "hear" the adults bitching and moaning about their lots in life, and see McCourt's drunken father as he drinks away the family's food money, we "live" the experiences through the wonder and magic and innocence of a boy who knows pain but also the simple joys of living.

One minute the book brings you to the verge of tears -- the next, you're laughing out loud from McCourt's playful, marvelously funny prose. If you've only seen the movie (which I haven't, but hear is terrible), don't hold it against the book. My favorite book and one I recommend to everyone who cares to listen.


A little gem of a book, revolving around love not only of the written word, but of the compact, paper-bound package that it comes in. Written by Carlos Maria Dominguez in Spanish and translated into English, the tale explores the various stages of love, obsession, mystery and heartbreak that accompany a life devoted to the collection of books.

The first-person narrator's academic colleague and part-time lover has been tragically run over by a car while carrying a book of Emily Dickinson poems, an event that triggers an odyssey of sorts and leads the narrator and reader both into a world of literary delight and compulsion.

A short but sweet ride, from a writer who obviously holds a lot of appreciation for the lives of novel readers, as well as a bit of ambivalence concerning the acquisition and collection that goes into creating the abundant personal libraries so many of us have in our homes. The care and feeding of these physical housings of imagination and knowledge tread the fine line, Dominguez posits, between respectful, loving adoration and obsessive compulsion. There are also a number of really interesting, evocative drawings by Peter Sis that accompany the text and adorn the front and back cover of this book about dreams and nightmares.