Rating - 3: worth reading once (borrow it from a library)
This is surprisingly good. When you see a book advertised as being from an anonymous waiter-blogger, even the most famous waiter-blogger in the world (and you still have not heard of him), you might normally move on.
The Waiter writes a professional memoir after about a decade at high-end restaurants. He tells about how life led him to waiting, the lives of his co-workers and customers, and meanings that arise from the little stories playing out everyday.
A professional memoir from a 40-ish waiter is an odd thing. He has a few failed careers behind him, a decent but dead-end job, and a stack of broken people. The broken people are where this is at, the bulk of the interesting parts of the story. The waiter fits naturally in the role of the observer, the narrator who does little but stands unseen amidst the activity.
We have chapters on illegal immigrants and Russell Crowe. We have a long line of addicts working at restaurants, including a "tips as slot machine" metaphor that mirrors Dan Savage's chapter on gambling. We have angry customers, irrational co-workers, and unworkable situations.
The first chapter hits this last trio the hardest, and it is a difficult introduction to the book. We have one horrid night that covers abuse, corruption, neglect, sabotage, and de facto theft. This is not presented as atypical. If you really liked that chapter and want a longer parade of horrors, this will be disappointing. If you struggled, you might like the rest. I was in the latter camp: I am not here to see some poor soul tortured by psychopaths.
Some of the book serves as a great example of the fundamental attribution error. Other people do bad things, bad things happen to him. He describes himself as hiding from life in The Bistro, and you can see him hiding from responsibility. The author does explicitly call himself out for doing dumb things and making bad decisions, sometimes, which makes it more conspicuous how often we are the good guys in our own stories (as he is in his, where even bad decisions can be excused by worse circumstances).
I am harping on that point too hard. The distinction is very fine, and it is not going to become clearer without turning this whole review over to it, so let us move on. Shall we finish with attacks before returning to the good?
You should expect navel-gazing in such a book, but it goes further than I expected. His efforts to get a book contract keep re-appearing, along with his worries about whether he is a good writer. If we are reading the book, he got his contract, so someone thought he was good enough. It is a too-obvious frame for the book. You can see other writing tricks, including a long conversation that reads like a faux-Platonic dialogue and overly flowery despair while drinking. I questioned at times how much incidents had been edited or rearranged for narrative convenience. Circling back to self-obsession, it feels odd to have others praising what a good/wise person you are when you are writing in the first person.
Our author's character arc is good. It tells a coherent story from an ugly starting point to a relative prominence that can then be battered and torn down, ending with redemption and hope. It is a classic tale and told skillfully.
His vignettes about those around him are good. Characters are drawn quickly, with the detail you would want for someone to have a prominent scene or two then leave the stage entirely. Recurring characters do so quietly, building significance as the story moves towards its conclusion. One chapter is explicitly about these vignettes, and it works very well.
The writing is good. The constant worries sound like fishing for compliments, so there you go: good job. You get the same thumbs-up as million-selling authors. Good luck with that.
I have long said that everyone should work retail or a restaurant at some point. It brings a certain clarity and awareness. If nothing else, you should know what happens in the backroom that might affect you. I chose retail, and I still dine out despite having so many friends who have been cooks and waiters. The tips at the end might be of use to you.
Expected publication: July 2008
Note from Amazon: customers who ordered this item also ordered books from David Sedaris and the 2nd season of Dexter. Yeah, that's about the right cross-section.