Stephen King Short Story Project, #35, “Lunch at the Gotham Café”

The story: “Lunch at the Gotham Café,” collected in Everything’s Eventual. First published in 1995. Wikipedia entry here.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: Steve Davis is reeling from his wife’s unexpected demand for a divorce. He agrees to meet her and her lawyer at a fancy restaurant to discuss divorce logistics, but the meeting goes south when an insane maître d’ attacks them with a butcher knife. After a lengthy running battle through the restaurant, Steve and his wife escape, but alas, Steve’s heroics are not enough to save their marriage.

My thoughts: I’ll say it upfront: this story didn’t really work for me. I’ll try to unpack what exactly went amiss.

First things first: I was in a bad mood when I read this story. I had just bungled a parenting situation with my four-year-old son, and it was probably a little unfair to demand that Mr. King cheer me up with a blood-drenched story about a murderous waiter.

But really, I’m not quite sure what King is aiming for with this one. It may simply be that “Lunch at the Gotham Café” tries to address a few too many ideas in the space of 45 pages; in the course of this story, King earnestly muses on the nature of insanity, the cruel fickleness of women, the difficulty of recovering from an addiction (cigarettes), the jerkiness of lawyers, the quirks of married relationships… all wrapped around a 15-page knife fight scene.

The most effective of those things is the knife fight, so let’s talk about that. When it comes to action scenes, King is a believer in extreme detail; he describes every movement, every feint, every swing, every wound, every thought that runs through the protagonist’s mind. This isn’t pointless detail; King knows what he’s doing. The detail serves most obviously to provide a rich mental picture of the scene, but more importantly it stretches out the suspense by making us wait and wait for resolution. The danger is always that the detail will become monotonous, but King is generally aware of the line he shouldn’t cross. This scene isn’t a classic of literary tension, but it works. We wince each time the hero falters, and we cheer each time he gets in a good blow.

The other element of this story that works is the rumination on chemical addiction. Steve is a nicotine addict; he decides abruptly to quit smoking after receiving the divorce notice. King writes convincingly, and even movingly, about the psychological ordeal that going cold-turkey presents. King’s struggles with drug and alcohol addiction are well known and certainly contribute to the authenticity of these passages. This theme feels oddly shoehorned into this story, but what’s there works.

The rest of “Lunch at the Gotham Café” is unsatisfying. King writes often and well about married couples—particularly loving-but-bickering married couples—but he seems to stumble in his depiction of this failed marriage. Diane, the wife, is portrayed as an unrealistically awful person throughout, and when she coldly rudely rebuffs Steve after he saves her life, we’re expected to sneer along with Steve at her petty meanness. (Her lawyer is mean in that lawyer-joke stereotype sort of way—so of course he dies a gruesome death.) I think that King is trying to give us a provocative portrait of two humans who failed at having a relationship—the wife’s faults are obvious, and we can infer from the narrator’s lack of empathy for his wife and his presumed self-serving exaggeration of her unpleasantness that he probably wasn’t Husband of the Year material—but because we have to experience this through his eyes alone, it feels faintly distasteful.

The story closes unnecessarily with Steve musing on the waiter’s insanity and tries to draw a parallel between Steve and the waiter—are crazy people just like us? Who among us might not snap at any minute? Not especially insightful.

I feel a bit bad knocking this story, what with my aforementioned bad mood and all. Mr. King, if the stress of dealing with my son’s potty-training difficulties has caused me to unfairly criticize your work, I apologize. But this story is an unconvincing mishmash of Stephen King themes; he’s done this all better elsewhere. Let’s move on.

Next up: “One for the Road,” in Night Shift.

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