Sally Rooney is an author who’s career over the last few years has in modern terminology, ‘blown the hell up.’ Her first novel, Normal People was a big ol’ hit that became a big ol’ hit a second time when it was adapted into a Hulu series that was released just around the time Covid-19 canceled everyone’s summer vacation plans. Both iterations received largely popular reviews from every major magazine and newspaper that has a section on TV shows and/or books. The actual story of Normal People, revolves around a pair of Irish teenagers that fall in love and stay in love, despite class differences and general millennial angst. Her works’ success has led Sally Rooney to become for many the ‘Millennial Whisperer’ of modern letters, leading her previous novels and short fiction to receive similar critical attention. Her books are very good, and she does a fantastic job of capturing the aimlessness and insecurity that have become the defining characteristics of the millennial generation in global culture. She’s likely the most famous Irish author currently writing and for sure one of the most well-known authors of her age bracket.
The documentary 78/52 is a film I watched right around the time I was reading today’s book. It’s an exploration of the infamous shower scene from the Alfred Hitchcock film Psycho and is a frame by frame break down of the scene, with commentary from directors, writers and actors that have all been inspired by the scene in some way. The main message of the film is the power that something short, but beautiful can have on the wider culture. A 45 second film scene can generate a cultural impact far greater than its size if made the right way. The same can be true of short stories, if written with enough skill.
Today’s work is a short story by Rooney, published on its own as a short book. If you don’t want to add another novel to your bedside pile just yet and already have too many shows to stream, then this book is a fantastic introduction to Rooney’s writing. This is Mr. Salary by Sally Rooney.
Mr. Salary’s story is simple and short. Sukie, an Irish college student, is in love with an older man. His name is Nathan, or ‘Mr. Salary’ as her father derisively calls him due to his well-paying, white collar job. Sukie’s father hasn’t been great. His pill popping problem and the early death of her mom lead her to be cared for by various friends and family members that did their best, but couldn’t take the place of being her true parents. This has left Sukie unmoored in her early 20’s, attending college and grad school in both Harvard and Ireland, but not seeming super enthused about it. A constant in her life has been Mr. Salary, a similarly unattached man (no wife, no kids) who presents financial stability and a willingness to help her out in difficult times with rides from the airport and a guest room to crash in.
Sukie is in love with Mr. Salary, and Mr. Salary 100% want to hit that as well. They’re well aware of their mutual attraction to each other, but have never acted on it. Her school schedule makes a long distance relationship the only real option for them, and Nathan doesn’t want to cross the line with Sukie, for fear of looking like an old creep. They’ve settled into a routine of emotionally charged interactions whenever she’s home in Ireland that leaves everyone, readers included, with a serious case of blue balls. This years long ‘will they, won’t they’ relationship will come to its head when Sukie comes home to see her prodigal dad, who is dying of leukemia in a Dublin hospital. This story pulls no punches and it’s very obvious how it will end from the start. The tension must be released, and Sukie’s imminent catapulting into both adulthood and orphan-hood will change their relationship forever. It’s going to happen, the question is how.
This is far from a bad thing. This story is meant to take us along for the ride, letting the ins and outs of Sukie and Nathan’s relationship wash over us before their fragile equilibrium is upset forever. At the risk of writing a review longer than the actual story, let me just say that it is a fantastic piece of writing that introduces the reader to Rooney’s style in a story that can be read in less time than it takes to watch an episode of Normal People. I wasn’t surprised by a single thing that happened in this story, but I loved every second of it. Rooney is a master of building tension and simulating years of longing in only a few short snapshots of interactions between two characters. It’s a short ride, and a beautiful one.
Quote of the Story:
“I got out of the car and he drove off without waving to me. My love for him felt so total and so annihilating that it was often impossible for me to see him clearly at all. If he left my line of sight for more than a few seconds, I couldn’t even remember what his face looked like. I had read that infant animals formed attachments to inappropriate things sometimes, like falcons falling in love with their human breeders, or pandas with their zookeepers, things like that. I once sent Nathan a list of articles about this phenomenon. Maybe I shouldn’t have come to your christening, he replied.” –Sukie
Keep or Donate:
Psycho’s shower scene is likely the most famous scene Hitchcock ever filmed. It represents a lifetime of filmmaking experience and genuine genius distilled into a flawless 45 seconds of screen time. It’s the most powerful scene in a film that is his masterpiece. Mr. Salary is not Rooney’s masterpiece. It’s a small story, told brilliantly that shows a young author just beginning her rise as an author. Her two novels, Normal People and Conversations With Friends, both eclipse this story, and she’s not even 30 yet. That being said, you should read this story. It’s quick, it’s touching and it gives you a taste of what Ms. Rooney will be capable of in the coming years. Donate it or give it to a friend to read. Keep it on the shelf, and it will just get lost there.