Édouard Louis’ The End of Eddy is a gripping first-person account of violence as both a pervasive physical feature of life in rural France and a symbolic marker of working-class reality. Staying true to his intellectual roots in French sociology, Louis turns a sharp analytical eye to the myriad ways violence is manifested within his social milieu. Set in his hometown of Hallencourt–the French equivalent of Trump Country–he begins the novel with the shocking line: “From my childhood I have no happy memories.”
What follows is a rather grim yet honest portrayal of his tortured journey into adulthood. For the most part, he avoids the clichés of other coming-of-age novels, though the divergent paths of the men and women in his story take predictable turns. Eddy’s father and older brother toil away in factories and spend many booze-fueled nights picking fights in bars, while his mother is left at home to clean up after the unruly men in her life. Like the other women in the village, she is tasked with the impossible: to maintain order simultaneously in the domestic and public spheres.
In its most triumphant passages, the book captures experiences that every gay man who has ever left home in search of himself will recognize. Take, for example, the moment the author first bears witness to his father’s shame. Explaining to the soccer coach why Eddy decided to quit playing, his father stammers in embarrassment: “And well, you know, Eddy’s a little bit weird, I mean, not weird, but a little bit strange.” Then, shifting seamlessly from narrative to analysis, Louis writes, “In the end he came out and admitted it, looking wretched and not wanting to meet the other man’s gaze I guess it turns out he’s just not that into football.” As his father’s words trail off and his eyes stare downward at the end of this scene, Louis internalizes the shame and realizes he must start quietly plotting his escape.
Readers accustomed to French social mores may be unfazed by the candor with which Louis describes sex, such as the time he lost his virginity to his cousin at the age of ten. Yet even during these luridly detailed scenes, he manages to transcend the merely pornographic to reveal deeper truths about the self. “Once my hands had taken on the smell of their genitals,” he writes of an afternoon tryst in his attic with the neighborhood boys, “I wouldn’t wash them; I’d spend hours sniffing at them like an animal. They smelled like what I was.”
Whereas Bourdieu’s habitus is more dynamic in the way it shifts between social structure and individual agency, Louis takes a more deterministic approach to reckon with his class upbringing. He tells us the value his mother places on education is a form of compensation for her “mistakes”–a wish for the social mobility of her children. Louis finds his mother’s word choice here ironic and reduces her understanding of life’s circumstances to a case of false consciousness:
She didn’t understand that her trajectory, what she would call her mistakes, fitted in perfectly with a whole set of logical mechanisms that were practically laid down in advance and non-negotiable. She didn’t realize that her family, her parents, her brothers and sisters, even her children, pretty much everyone in the village had the same problems, and what she called mistakes were, in fact, no more and no less than the perfect realisation of the normal course of things.
Though the use of sociological concepts occasionally chafes against his prose, Louis nevertheless makes an important contribution to contemporary queer literature by illuminating how biographies of class intersect with gender and sexuality. His response to the rampant violence of his childhood is particularly telling: “Every morning in the bathroom getting ready I would repeat the same phrase to myself over and over again… Today I’m gonna be a tough guy.”
This book is in many ways about being what Louis calls a “class renegade”–to both his blue-collar family and the bourgeois world of Parisian intellectuals he now inhabits. While I hoped we would see him grapple more with the latter, that will have to wait for another book. Given that the author is only 25 years old, I have a feeling he has a lot more to write. And I hope for all of our sake that this is only the beginning.
© 2018 ZACH SHULTZ ALL RIGHTS RESERVED