Stewart O’Nan’s new novel Last Night at the Lobster, which details the last day in the life of a Red Lobster franchise, is near the top of my reading list this month. It isn’t just that the writers’ strike has deprived me of nightmare-job comedy like The Office; Mr. O’Nan’s book sounds more melancholy than comical, truth be told. Nor is it that today’s New York Times profile of Mr. O’Nan (“he still drives a 1995 metallic copper pearl [translation: orange] Mitsubishi Eclipse that rattles on the highway”) reassures us that the book isn’t just a hipster sneer at a soft target:
After lunch, a waiter delivered a brownie sundae to an elderly woman . . . and serenaded her with a surprisingly melodic rendition of “Happy Birthday.” “That gets to the heart of it,” Mr. O’Nan said. “It’s America. This is where folks live. There is nothing ironic or silly about it.”
That certainly helps, but the chief reason I’ll be picking up Last Night is that after Joshua Ferris’s terrific debut of office life, Then We Came to the End, I vowed to read any new fiction that depicts people working at actual jobs. Part of the fun of Richard Ford’s The Lay of the Land, for instance, is that it takes the reader through the ins and outs of real estate, a subject that I never expected to find fascinating. By contrast, Dana Vachon’s debut Mergers & Acquisitions shows people at a job, but not working in any discernible sense. The book might as well be set in a country club.
It’s amazing how greatly a writer benefits from a working knowledge of what people spend most of their time doing. In Paul Johnson’s Creators, he notes that Geoffrey Chaucer
was involved professionally with the army and navy, international commerce, the export and import trade, central and local government finance, parliament and the law courts, the Exchequer and Chancery, the agricultural and forestry activities of the crown estates . . . and the workings of internal commerce and industry, especially the building trade.
Apparently Chaucer knew life in all its toiling variety. It doesn’t seem like a stretch to say that, were he our contemporary, he himself might have written The Franchise Manager’s Tale.