‘The End of Eddy’ by Édouard Louis
Author: Steve Susoyev
May 14, 2017
Last year’s blockbuster memoir Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance, illuminated for U.S. readers a phenomenon that many of us are still struggling to grasp: the support for Donald Trump in communities scarred by poverty, violence, and hopelessness. In The End of Eddy, a young gay writer takes us to his home village, a hotbed of right-wing, homophobic discontent in Northern France, and delivers a corollary message that can both depress and inspire us.
The book appeared in French in 2014, when the author was 21, and is newly available in English as well as 20 other languages. It has generated a cyclone of sociopolitical, class-based analysis. And whatever the book accomplishes or represents for the academic community, The End of Eddy is a good read, a raw and profoundly personal narrative that we find accessible in this translation, with its rough edges intact.
The French wunderkind Édouard Louis was born Eddy Bellegueule in Hallencourt, a derelict factory town north of Paris. He legally changed his name shortly before this book was published. Rendered in English, his title leaves the reader free to interpret who the author has decided to be: En Finir Avec Eddy Bellegueule implies that the young writer was making the earlier version of himself disappear. The first member of his family to pursue a college education, he has escaped the cycle of poverty and brutality into which he was born, and he writes with incisive clarity tempered by a distant compassion for the people who tormented him throughout his childhood.
With a few harrowing exceptions, most of the book’s violence is mitigated by the author’s empathy for the anguished perpetrators. We hold our breath when Eddy’s older brother Vincent, very drunk, attacks and threatens to kill Eddy. “He wanted to make sure that my little brother didn’t turn out like me, a pussy,” the adult Édouard recalls. “And in fact I had worried about the same thing.” Their mother steps in to stop Vincent; finally their father, also very drunk, takes a beating to protect Eddy.
Eddy’s father, himself having grown up the victim of severe domestic violence, submits to the beating from his older son because he has sworn never to strike his own children. The adult Édouard dismisses his father’s forbearance as a “point of honor” that allowed him to distinguish himself from his own abusive father. Louis seems disinclined to grant his father any personal praise, but in his distant way he expresses begrudging respect for the man.
The book, like the author’s life, is imbued with paradoxes. “I don’t love my father,” Louis stated in a recent interview with Penguin UK, “but I can say, at the same time, living that condition of life is unbearable, and I want to fight for him. I don’t love my mother, and want to help her when I think of the life she has.” Eddy’s mother, who raised five children on groceries from the food bank, argued with reporters after the book’s release, insisting that the family was not poor. In the book, Eddy’s father advocates capital punishment for homosexuals, but when a gay man in the village is assaulted by a group of men, his father protects him and threatens the mob, “If one of you touches him, I will destroy all of you.” Eddy himself, from an early age, lectures his younger brother Rudy on the evils of homosexuality, “obsessed with the need to make sure that he turned out straight.”
Much of the book’s cruelty is passive and routine, and shows us how generations of villagers have been worn down by it. Teenagers detect a foul odor emanating from an old man’s shack, and the adults discover that the man has died in his bed. Rather than showing sadness over the lonely neighbor’s death, the faces of the townspeople reflect idle curiosity: women “used Kleenex to cover their noses so they could keep watching… so they could escape for a few minutes from a daily routine that held no surprises… We told this story often, we thought it was funny.”
Other references to violence stun the reader. Recounting one of his many attempts to fit in among boys he does not trust, Eddy describes having watched these boys burn a chicken alive, use a chicken as a soccer ball. We learn of this history offhandedly, in a scene that leads to Eddy’s introduction to sex with those same boys.
Some of the author’s insights about violence and self-hatred in an economically ravaged environment are predictable, and come to us comfortably packaged as political science. He describes himself joining a crowd and yelling, “Shut the fuck up faggot,” thus confessing that he has bullied a student who, at least for the moment, is more vulnerable than he is. He writes of punching a close friend, Amélie, because she has referred to his parents as “slackers.” He grabs her by the hair and bashes her head against a parked school bus. Immediately a crowd surrounds him and his friend, and the boys yell, “Punch her face in…” Louis tells us, “She had made me understand that she belonged to a more reputable world than mine.” The author carries on this sociopolitical analysis and seems to forget that he has left the reader in the middle of a story: we never learn what happened to Amélie or to Eddy’s friendship with her.
After Eddy and three other boys are caught in a sex game his cousin Stéphane has contrived, Eddy is the only participant who is later tormented by the town bullies. He realizes that “Pretending to be gay was their way of showing that they really weren’t.” More slowly he absorbs the knowledge that he is not being punished for what he has done; several boys in his school have had sex with other boys. He is being punished for who he is—something he spends his entire childhood trying desperately to change. To “succeed,” he reflects, would mean to become like everyone else. His failure at this important task leads to “The End of Eddy” and the creation of the young writer and thinker he is today.
Louis’s autobiographical novel has aggravated members of his family and the community of Hallencourt. They dispute “elements” of his story, but no one has denied the grinding, daily violence of life in the town, or the relentless abuse the young boy suffered at the hands of bullies and his own family for his “fancy ways.” His father, who loved televised U.S. crime dramas, had named him “Eddy” because the moniker sounded tough, and Édouard writes that as a child he spent each morning before school at the bathroom mirror, rehearsing how to “be a tough guy.” His childhood home contained no books, only four battered television sets. His father believed that books were “for queers.” “We knew that literature didn’t talk about us, that the world didn’t talk about us,” Édouard writes. In the Penguin UK interview, he said, “When you are from the bourgeoisie, you exist twice. You exist through your body and you exist through discourse—through speeches, because the newspaper talks about you, because literature talks about you. But when you come from the working class you only live once; you don’t have this other life.”
In a May 4 New York Times Op-Ed, “Why My Father Votes for Le Pen,” Louis has written that when he finished the End of Eddy manuscript, he submitted it to a major Paris publisher, who rejected the book “because the poverty I wrote about hadn’t existed in more than a century; no one would believe the story I had to tell. I read that email several times, choked with rage and despair. The explanation was tragic but simple: the life I’d known, the life that my mother and father still lived while I was writing, was so completely absent from the public discourse that, in the end, those who didn’t live it believed that it didn’t exist.”
Thus he explains his father’s support of Le Pen’s ultra-right National Front, which won more than half of the vote in Louis’s village in France’s 2017 presidential runoff election. “What these elections really meant for my father was a chance to fight his sense of invisibility. My father understood, long before I did, that in the minds of the bourgeoisie—people like the editor who would turn down my book a few years later—our existence didn’t count and wasn’t real.”
This is where a gay French boy leads us to a deeper understanding of our own circumstance with rednecks for Trump: “Unlike the ruling class, my father didn’t have the privilege of voting for a political program. Voting, for him, was a desperate attempt to exist in the eyes of others.”
Of course the book was eventually published, and sold 300,000 copies in its first year. In one of many paradoxes, Louis’s father bought 20 copies to give to friends, so proud of his son the author—the son who has changed his name and moved far away from Hallencourt and his family.
Édouard Louis’s emotional intensity alternates with intellectual distance—sometimes comforting, sometimes distracting. After a heartbreaking scene of abuse, Louis reflects on the social forces that have moved the families of his tormentors from leftist politics into support for homophobic and racist right-wing politicians. In a recent interview with the UK Observer, he said, “As a writer, every single line I write is intended as a reminder to the dominant class, not to forget that for most individuals like my parents, like refugees, politics is still a question of life and death. We must put that idea of life and death back in the centre of politics.”
The End of Eddy is dark but not without lighthearted and even occasional playful moments. Louis describes his young self making out with a girl named Laura—always in front of a schoolyard audience—and how afterward, on the school bus, he rubs his tongue and teeth with his fingers to eradicate the taste of her mouth. He resolves to break up with her, but reconsiders when his tough-guy cousin Stéphane says, “Laura’s your girl, the one everyone says is a real slut.” This moment reveals his cousin’s esteem, a “manly complicity that I had never shared with him before.” Thus encouraged, Eddy redoubles his efforts with Laura and finds to his surprise that he can become sexually aroused by a woman. He concludes that he has been “cured” of his homosexuality—until the pressure of a man’s erection against him at a crowded rock concert reminds him of what he has been missing.
We know this older cousin, Stéphane, who a few years earlier was arranging sex games during which he and a buddy routinely sodomized Eddy and another young friend. Louis does not classify these formative sexual experiences with the torment he suffered through teasing and beatings; instead, he tells us how, at age ten, he relished having Bruno, a muscular 15-year-old with a “massive” penis, enter him.
Some of the book’s most beautiful writing appears in these passages. “I was breathing in the smell of naked bodies and wishing I could turn the smell into a substance so that I could eat it, and make it more real… beneath the smooth, milky skin of children, adult muscles were beginning to form.” Mingled with such moments are Eddy’s fantasies of killing the other boys, so that “I could have Bruno’s body all to myself, his strong arms, his legs with their bulging muscles…”
Édouard Louis presents himself to readers as a newly created man. The pathetic victim, Eddy, is dead. Édouard abandoned his remains in the village during his escape. We can celebrate with Édouard that he got away—that he won scholarships, earned prestigious degrees, and achieved worldly success. But we can also see that this newly fashioned Édouard remains a wounded boy, a victim of post-traumatic stress disorder. He survived the brutal habitat of his youth, and his writing today leaves us room to question whether he has fully embraced humanity. Édouard touchingly tells us that he weeps as he writes about his young self reciting his daily chant, Today I’m really gonna be a tough guy, but readers may wonder what happened to little Eddy’s friend Amélie, whose head, he has casually claimed, he once smashed against a school bus.
The book has stirred readers worldwide, with theatrical adaptations underway in several countries. Critics compare Édouard Louis to Proust, and, on this side of the Atlantic, to Edmund White. Louis is a more disciplined and less loquacious writer than Proust, and at 24, less self-aware but more politically charged than White. Since Proust, each generation of queer kids has been able to discover its own coming-of-age autobiographies and fictionalized memoirs of tough childhoods—and to celebrate, and replicate, the escape of canny young people from those difficult circumstances. Books like The World of Normal Boys by K.M. Soehnlein, released in 2001, and Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle from 1973, became staples of queer literature for ensuing generations, and still speak to young people who crave a place where they can belong. The End of Eddy will proudly carry on this tradition.
The young Eddy Bellegueule was desperate to fit in among the ignorant, brutal peasants who scorned him. The man he has become, Édouard Louis, appears just as eager to fit in among the academic sophisticates who have embraced him. At 22 he co-authored “Manifesto for an Intellectual and Political Counteroffensive,” published in English by the Los Angeles Review of Books, and he has since published a second novel in French, A History of Violence. The academic and literary milieu in which he now thrives is a brutal environment in its own right, and readers may worry for him almost as much as they mourn for the boy he left behind. But Louis seems to be in supportive company: he dedicates the memoir to his professor, Didier Eribon, a celebrated philosopher and the author of his own gay-boy-escapes-brutal-poverty memoir, Returning to Reims, from 2009. Eribon appears to have opened many doors for Édouard Louis, including by introducing him to his longtime associate Michael Lucey, who translated The End of Eddy into English.
As we celebrate Édouard Louis’s newfound place in the world, we will watch his burgeoning career with hope that he has a chance to continue growing into a full human being, not merely an intellectualized reaction to the foul circumstances from which he escaped.
The End of Eddy
By Édouard Louis
Translated by Michael Lucey
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Hardcover, 9780374266653, 208 pp.