Harper Perennial, 2008 (2009 paperback re-edition), 302 pages, C$18.99 pb, ISBN 978-0-06-125669-1
I might as well get something unpleasant out of the way: I hate tipping. I really, really hate it in the same way my Cartesian mind hates the unwritten rules of social interaction. Oh, I still do it, sticking to the socially-acceptable “15% plus a bit more” standard, but I’m one of those who would rather pay more on my bill for fully-salaried workers and dispense with the added complication. I like cold, hard printed numbers.
But after reading Steve Dublanica’s Waiter Rant, you can be sure that I won’t spend as much time raging against tips. Part biography of a professional waiter, part anthropological exposé of the job, Waiter Rant tells you about life on the other side of the dining table. Readers with an interest in fine web writing may recognize the title: After all, “Waiter Rant” was the name of a relatively popular pseudonymous blog. Now the author, revealed during the hardcover publicity campaign to be Steve Dublanica, has stepped up to the demands of a major book contract. Fans of the blog may be relieved to learn that the book is no mere reprint of blog notes, but that it arranges many of those incidents in a cohesive narrative.
It starts about seven years ago, as Dublanica becomes a waiter after professional setbacks. At the time, it’s a temporary job at a pretty dysfunctional restaurant. But Dublanica soon ends up working somewhere else as a waiter/manager, and the years pile up… by the time the narrative truly starts in Chapter 4, our narrator has been waiting tables at “The Bistro” for six years, and the pressures are piling up. Waiter Rant tells us about the last year that Dublanica spent at The Bistro.
It goes without saying that Waiter Rant is an exposé of the waiter’s job. The subtleties of the situations, the difficult clients that they encounter on a regular basis, the terrible things that happen even in high-end restaurants, the special holidays, busy shifts, tricks of the trade and ways to land on a waiter’s black-list: Waiter Rant has it all, and it’s told in crisp, hypnotically readable prose. Dublanica has peered deep in the human condition, seen unspeakable things and he is gifted enough to tell us about it. Bad patrons beware: Waiter Rant leaves you with no excuses and little justification. (There’s a handy 40-point checklist at the back to tell you how to behave. And so-called “foodies” can be the worst.)
But what could have been just a book of anecdotes and trade secrets soon becomes something else, as Dublanica’s facade as a professional waiter cracks to reveal a man stuck in his set patterns, a developing writer afraid to take the next steps, a waiter taking refuge in the known certitudes of his once-temporary job. The external pressures on his job, as tensions at the restaurant escalate to an untenable climax, merely confirm his inner struggle to do more with his life. It’s during those moments that our smooth and cynical “Jedi Waiter” becomes a well-rounded character: It’s a tricky balance, especially at first, but it develops in a successful narrative structure that does a lot for the book.
Dublanica’s strengths as a writer are obvious: He has a sharp eye for details, doesn’t embarrass itself with useless details, and often ends chapters on ironic notes. He’s able to stand in the middle of his anecdotes, yet tell them from a detached perspective, using specific incidents to illustrate larger points of etiquette, sociology or economic theory. Some of his techniques feel a bit too on-the-nose (such as a “dialogue” that passes off as a lecture on the merits of proper financial management), but they’re usually blips on an otherwise smooth narrative.
I picked Waiter Rant on not much more than a whim and ended up with one of my favourite reads of the year so far. I may not like tipping because it’s so wide open to interpretation, social customs and the whim of the moment, but after reading the book, it feels as if I’ve been given the keys to understanding what tipping is about… and why it matters. Until all of American society comes to realize the advantages of fully-salaried waiters, my 15% “and change” is likely to weigh a bit heavier on the “change” side from now on. After all, as Dublanica writes, don’t eat out if you can’t afford the tip.
(One recommendation for savvy readers: pick up the paperback edition, which not only properly credits Dublanica on the cover, but includes an afterword discussing his success after the publication of the hardcover edition. It makes for a truly satisfying epilogue.)