'The End Of Eddy' Tells Of Growing Up Poor And Gay In Working-Class France
Ever since the twin surprises of Brexit and Donald Trump's political rise, Western media has been obsessed with what's going on in the minds of rural and working-class people. In America, this helped make a star of J.D. Vance, whose book, Hillbilly Elegy, is looked on as a kind of Rosetta Stone to the psyche of forgotten America.
In France, 24-year-old literary sensation Édouard Louis has played a similar role. During that country's recent election — in which Emmanuel Macron defeated the right-wing populist Marine Le Pen — Louis' autobiographical novel The End of Eddy was seen as a bulletin from the enraged heart of Le Pen country.
Yet Louis' account of growing up gay and poor in a working-class village isn't only a story about France. Just released in a highly readable translation by Michael Lucey, this painfully insightful tale of entrapment and escape could've easily been set in Michigan or West Virginia.
When we first meet Eddy Bellegueule, he's being beaten up at school. It's clear to everyone, especially him, that he doesn't fit in. Secretly attracted to boys — with whom he starts having sex at a startlingly young age — Eddy's shrieky voice and sway-hipped walk get him identified as gay, although, naturally, nobody calls him anything so gentle as "gay."
Things are no easier at home, where his family struggles to make ends meet in their cramped house with concrete floors. His mother, who had her first child at 17, lives in a permanent state of rage punctuated by puffs of cigarette smoke. His father is a violent, hard-drinking factory worker who suffers vicious back pains from his job and eventually gets laid off. Both are disturbed by a son so unmanly that he doesn't even like soccer. As Eddy wittily puts it, they treat his obvious gayness as if it was some weird art project that he does just to annoy them.
While Eddy's parents are both vivid characters — Louis has a great ear for their patois — what makes the novel special is the way it expands outward. Louis shows how his parents' values have been shaped by a profound sense of powerlessness shared with their neighbors in the village of Hallencourt, a blue-collar community bleak with unemployment, alcoholism, violence, racism and a deadening sense that life goes nowhere.
Hallencourt is the kind of place where the high school has the same architecture as the local factory, because you're supposed to go straight from one to the other. When Eddy's sister dreams of studying to be a midwife, everyone makes her feel this is too grand for someone like her — better off to be a cashier.
As prisoners of economic forces they don't understand and can't control, the locals learn to take pride in toughing out miserable circumstances, and they loathe the style of the political and economic elite. When Eddy uses the term "have dinner" instead of his father's inevitable "chow down," he's mocked for pretending to be part of a higher social class.
In most classic novels about poor boys rising beyond their beginnings, the road to freedom is paved by a love of books, and Eddy is bookish by his family standards. He writes with artful precision about everything from his floundering attempts to de-gay himself by dating girls to the way Airness tracksuits brand village guys as lower-class.
Ironically, what helps Eddy escape is the very thing that gets him abused: his gayness. Where the men around him, including his older brother, affirm their dignity by honoring a tough-guy image of masculinity — with its drinking, fighting, porn-watching and physical labor — Eddy is immune to that image's allure. There's an abyss between the name Eddy — chosen by his dad because it sounds tough — and who he actually is. He needs to get away.
And eventually, he does. I won't say how, but The End of Eddy ends with the beginning of a journey, one that will lead him to change his name from Eddy Bellegueule to the classier Édouard Louis. He will study in Paris, edit a scholarly book about sociology and appear on French talk shows where he'll explain how, even though he was treated cruelly, his parents and the Hallencourt villagers aren't intrinsically cruel. Instead, like so many people who feel abused by our globalized world, they were merely passing the abuse along.
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