Saturday, August 28, 2010

"This place, and everyone in it, is disposable:" On modern Miracle-Mile culture

Take a trip with me in your mind down the Miracle Mile you frequent the most. While you're stopped at the light, look to your left. What's there? OK, now what was there last year? Three years ago? Five, ten, twenty? How many times do you suppose it's changed over since you started using this particular Miracle Mile? Why, and what happened to the people that worked there?

These questions are raised by Stewart Nan's brief and haunting Last Night at the Lobster. Told from the third-person viewpoint of Manny, the general manager, it takes us through the final day of a Red Lobster in Connecticut.

Manny has no idea why it happened. They were supposed to close for remodeling, and then corporate just pulled the plug. He is among the lucky ones, he'll go to the Olive Garden a couple of towns over, along with five of his best employees. Everyone else is looking for work.

The staff is a cross-section of "everyone else:" the hostess, who is putting herself through college with this job. The cook, an ex-military guy. The young, unsettled line workers with a bent for trouble who will probably through three or four similar jobs in the next year. The system-breaker, waitress Roz, who's the only one vested in the company's retirement plan. Nicolette, another waitress, who doesn't take any crap from anyone and once chased patrons across the lot to get her pen back. Jackie, who used to date Manny and now dates some dangerous cricket player.

Manny has been fair to them, a good guy, and that's why they all bother showing up. Manny himself is meticulous and utterly competent, in addition to being such a fair good guy, and one might wonder why he doesn't have a better job, though it's hard to see what else, exactly, he might be suited for.

Nan puts the soul in the machine with this book. Manny is such a good general manager, doing everything exactly by the book until it's lights out, that it's heartbreaking to see how little corporate loves him back. In fact, they don't care about anyone: not what will become of the struggling mall in which the Lobster's located, nor what their regular patrons will do for their lunches and dinners.

Their closing, you see, was not publicly announced. After their final lunch and dinner, Manny will get to return the next day, alone, and stand outside in the snow with coupons for the Olive Garden, as if the closing is his fault. The book is a thought-provoking exploration of the human cost of the Miracle Mile way of life that we are all part of, like it or not.