In Hallencourt, where writer Édouard Louis grew up, the word “violence” is seldom used. Which isn’t to say it’s a peaceful, idyllic place. There may be the ostensible benefits of the countryside; the surrounding area may be lively and green. But the town ― which, in France’s recent presidential race, favored the Trump-esque Marine Le Pen ― is marked by its gendered social values.
Louis ― born Eddy Bellegueule ― writes in his novel The End of Eddy that he was chastised and bullied for his “affected” voice from a young age. His father and eldest brother were both drinkers and fighters. Like most men in Hallencourt, his father dropped out of high school to work at a factory, but was unable to continue his work due to an injured back. The author flatly recounts memories of his father, who would murder litters of kittens and brawl for sport. Louis, meanwhile, took pleasure in trying on women’s clothes, and devised excuses for skipping out on soccer practice.
Louis’s parents, and others in town, eventually came to accept his queerness just as they conceded the personhood of the only black person they knew in town. But acceptance came with a stipulation, a rationalization: we like you because you’re not like the others. Being not like the others meant being tough. In Hallencourt, toughness was the highest virtue. It meant doing backbreaking work. It meant, in Louis’ case, not flinching when a classmate hocked a phlegmy wad of spit onto his face.
Louis is gifted at limning visceral descriptions of squalor. His want to not allow doctors to cede control of his body, and his resulting choice to spray a tetanus-blackened foot with perfume; his dust-covered and smoke-filled home, made worse by having asthma; his dad’s proclivity for fixing up old TV’s, and demanding that the family watch together in silence over dinner. The psychological insights he culls from these experiences are poignant. His mother’s tendency to declare that she’s “not a lady,” the habit both kids and adults in town had of laughing at the pain of others, as though laughter conveyed strength of character.
Of being bullied at school, Louis writes, “They laughed when my face began to turn purple from lack of oxygen (a natural response from working-class people, the simplicity of those who possess little and enjoy laughing, who know how to have a good time).” On the town’s rampant racism, Louis’ takeaways run the risk of being facile. “There is a will that exists, a desperate, constantly renewed effort to place some people on a level below you,” he explains plainly.
Still, the writer’s emotional tenor and clear-sightedness make this a must-read for anyone looking to learn more about class in the West, and how it weighs on the state of politics.
The bottom line
A touching story that’s artfully told, The End of Eddy will both make you want to turn away ― the descriptions of violence are that rich, and sensate ― and continue on with its frank and generous author.
Who wrote it
Édouard Louis, aka Eddy Bellegueule, is the author of two novels. Michael Lucey, the book’s translator, is a professor of French literature at the University of California, Berkeley.
Who will read it
Anyone interested in the burgeoning subgenre of autofiction, or in stories about class, masculinity, and growing up queer.
What other reviewers think
Slate: “Coming to terms with his childhood has resulted in this stark and honest image of French working class society, rendered in an authentic voice.”
Washington Post: “What is most impressive about The End of Eddy is that its author turned himself into a man capable of creating such a vivid and honest self-portrait.”
“From my childhood I have no happy memories. I don’t mean to say that I never, in all those years, felt any happiness or joy. But suffering is all-consuming: it somehow gets rid of anything that doesn’t fit into its system.”
“The truth was that the display of all these bits of flesh was driving me crazy. I was using words like fags, fairies, queers to keep my distance from them. I used these words against the others in the hope that they would stop invading every inch of my body.”
The End of Eddy
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $23.00
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