The French people in Édouard Louis’s The End of Eddy are not the French that you know. Here you will not find immaculately styled Parisians talking literature or politics at the café. The French in The End of Eddy are not the French whose diet and sophistication are celebrated in how-to guides, whose delicacies of taste and care with cuisine are touted as an example to all us lesser folk.
The “other” French we meet in The End of Eddy live not in Paris or Cannes or Nice but in Picardy, in a village called Hallencourt, somewhere in the post-industrial north of France. Their lives are defined largely by constant and unrelenting need. The events in the book, as the author Édouard Louis has recounted in several interviews, are all true, and they are also terrifying. At their center is the young Eddy Bellegueule (the novelistic incarnation of Louis himself), a boy whose early effeminacy renders him the target of beatings at school and taunts at home. Louis renders both with chilling acuity: his tormentors at school are “tall with red hair and the second, short with a hunchback” who spit in his face and accost him in the same hallway every day. He knows he will be hit, but he also returns every day to “avoid being hit elsewhere,” where he will face the added humiliation of being hit “in front of others.” Those who do not hit him pelt him with torrents of verbal abuse, “faggot, fairy, cocksucker, punk, pansy sissy” and so on, all day and every day.
There is more humiliation awaiting Eddy in his slovenly home. His father, who prides himself on being a “tough” guy, rarely shies from violence and is bent on ensuring that his son grows up to be a “tough” guy, too. It is not to be a successful endeavor, and the man does not take it well. As he grows, Eddy can feel “the terror mounting” in his father and is witness to the man’s “powerlessness in the face of the monster he had created and whose oddity became clearer with each passing day.” Thwarted thus by reality, Eddy’s father turns to cruelty. Laid off from his job at the brass factory that is Hallencourt’s sole employer, he assails Eddy with his virulent homophobia. One evening, Eddy returns to find him drunk with his buddies in the family’s small and grimy living room. Instead of their usual favorite, The Wheel of Fortune, the louts have tuned to a show that features a gay character named “Steevy.” Homophobic jokes and laughter abound, and as . Eddy is scurrying by, his father says, “Hey Steevy hows it goin? How was school?” The men laugh so much that they have tears in their eyes. . Eddy, for whom “crying is not an option,” tries simply not to respond at all to the taunts.
There are in fact very few options for anyone in Hallencourt. The intimate drama of Eddy’s struggle vis-à-vis his sexuality is set against a larger landscape of constraint and claustrophobia that we rarely reflected in literature on or about France. Eddy and his family live in a four-room home with concrete floors and mold crawling up the walls. There are as many television sets as there are rooms, and one of them is always on. A book, however, is an object of suspicion, “an assault,” and so is conversation using fancy words or even very correct French (the family is better at speaking a northern Picardy dialect). Caring too much about homework or books or getting ahead in the world is frowned upon, as it would perhaps be in any milieu where improvement is unlikely and the odds too many. Some do make halfhearted attempts. Eddy’s older sister tells her school counselor that she wants to be a Spanish teacher. He convinces her otherwise; she doesn’t seem to have the grades, he notes. She engages in some feeble persistence, then settles for working the till at the village bakery. There she will be guaranteed a paycheck.
The American infatuation with France demands a France that is markedly different from itself, never common nor louche, always avant-garde and forever superior. The End of Eddy is a dislocation of this arrangement. The post-industrial France within its covers, one in which Eddy is named after the American shows his father has watched on television, is much like post-industrial America. Like their similarly disenchanted counterparts in rural Kentucky or Wisconsin or Kansas, both Eddy’s parents are casualties of a provincialism they long to escape but whose failings in both education and expectation doom their chances of doing so. They rail at the television, at life, at their children, they drink and curse and fight, and for the most part they stay put, sentencing their children to the same cycle of despair. Angry but confused, they lob their hatreds at Arabs and Muslims and blacks and, of course, homosexuals. As Louis notes, there is a central contradiction in their behavior: his mother, for instance, rails against the powers that be, whose neglect is the nub of her misery, yet invokes those same powers to act with “ruthlessness in dealing with Arabs, with alcohol, with drugs, with any sexual behavior” of which she doesn’t approve.
These disinherited of France (and their American and Dutch and British counterparts) present an emerging political class, a new grouping of the West’s discontents. As Louis implies and Americans know, their exclusion is not without consequence, their anger increasingly a basis of electoral change. The results of the 2017 French election substantiate this; even while Emmanuel Macron has eked out a victory, Marine Le Pen’s National Front, the candidate Hallecourt’s citizens have proudly supported for decades, is second in line. It is a reality that could not have been imagined a decade ago.
The End of Eddy ends with an end to the Eddy that once was. Eddy Bellegueule tries hard to be straight and belong; he hangs out with college mates and goes to clubs to meet girls, enacting the initiation rituals of heterosexuality that will reassure his parents. He even pursues sexual relationships with women, and when they fail, he finally confronts the incongruity between his desire to “become a tough guy” and the “desire of his own body,” which pushes him toward men. The pathos of the tussle, poignantly portrayed, lies not simply in the internalized homophobia that has led him to so detest himself, but in the realization that owning the truth of his sexuality inevitably pushes him “away from my family away from the whole village.” The embrace of one part of him is the rejection of another.
He must choose, however, and he does. As he declares at the beginning of the book’s last chapter, “I had to get away.” Eddy leaves, thus breaking a cycle that has kept so many in his family confined to Hallecourt all their lives. We glimpse this other Eddy for a moment in the Epilogue. Away from the suffocations of the village, he is surrounded by the bourgeoisie, the denizens of that “other” France that America and the world know and love and copy. Among them, he owns his sexuality but remains ashamed of his class. In the last pages of the book, the jacket his mother has so proudly bought him to take to lycée is laughed at; ashamed, he throws it in the trash. At the end of The End of Eddy, as all though life itself, there is no complete self-acceptance, no final liberation; for Eddy and for everyone, the struggle to love oneself is always contradictory and never complete.
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