When he was a kid in New Jersey, Steven Sorrentino loved his neighborhood luncheonette, "an exotic destination where grilled cheese sandwiches and double-decker dreams were served up in no short order." Little did he know that one day he'd wind up behind that luncheonette's faded Formica counter, an order pad in one hand and a spatula in the other, with hopes of a Broadway musical career temporarily trashed. The scene thus set, the curtain rises on Act One of Luncheonette, a wacky, poignant and brutally truthful memoir of family, fast food and filial love.
New Jersey, Christmas Eve, 1980: Sorrentino's father is felled by a mysterious illness that completely paralyzes his lower body. On December 26, the author, in the role of dutiful son, steps up to the proverbial plate to run the family luncheonette and shelves his song-and-dance dreams to spend four years in front of a sizzling grill. He soon realizes, however, that it is not his father he must rescue, but himself. A young gay man not yet "out" to his New Jersey friends and family, Sorrentino gradually slips into a paralyzing despair, while his crippled father, ironically, finds renewed mobility and meaning through a career in local politics.
Written in short, wittily titled "acts," with a keen, acidly observing eye, Luncheonette serves up a slice-of-life, a coming-of-age story with dark humor, straight-up characterizations and bald honesty. A supporting cast of luncheonette eccentrics adds special spice: waitress Dolores, profane queen of malapropisms; abstemious Half-cup Harold; lugubrious Tombstone (a local gravedigger); and curmudgeonly Herck the Jerk. All worthy memoirs offer epiphany, and Sorrentino's dishes out rueful realization: "When it comes to family business, I have always been a slow learner. . . . I didn't need to know everything right away . . . true wisdom is parceled out into short orders, coming from the most surprising places, at the most unexpected times." And, if you're hungry for more truth, Luncheonette imparts another lesson: the secret to the perfect porkroll-egg-and-cheese sandwich is to fearlessly plunge in, score the meat and break the yolk.