THE END OF EDDY
By Edouard Louis
Translated by Michael Lucey
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25, 208 pages
After the first round of French elections on April 23, Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen advanced to a head-to-head runoff. For many French people, this is a crucial political moment — a viable, though unlikely, path to the presidency for the far-right National Front, which has made significant advances in the economically depressed, blue-collar regions of France where factory layoffs and widespread unemployment plague small villages. And it’s precisely in this environment that Edouard Louis’ novel “The End of Eddy” takes place.
Set in the north of France, “The End of Eddy” is a serious novel about a boy named Eddy coming to terms with his sexuality in the midst of poverty and intolerance. It is also an autobiographical tale, which gives the novel a greater air of legitimacy. Its author, Edouard Louis, has become something a French literary superstar, after first publishing the novel in French at age 21.
Far from the Parisian scenery found on postcards and in travel guides, Eddy grows up in a part of France more reminiscent of West Virginia mining towns than anything else. The small town in the north of France depends entirely on factories for employment. Generation after generation works long hours in factory, incapable of supporting large families with their wages. Like most of their neighbors, Eddy’s father works hard hours at the factory, until he suffers a back injury and gives into full-time alcoholism.
The majority of the novel is a retelling of Eddy’s middle school years, a difficult period for any boy deemed a “sissy,” but amplified by his desperate economic circumstances. Each day, he awaits beatings from an older red-haired boy and his hunchbacked companion. They spit on his face, call him names and bang his head against the wall. And the bruises on his body and face escape his mother’s notice. Unattended and unsupervised, he comes to anticipate suffering, and almost to relish it.
Yet no one in his family is spared from violence. Eddy’s older brother beats his girlfriend, his sister is beaten by her boyfriend, and his father regularly gets into bar fights. Almost as bad, however, is the shame that accompanies their poverty. Eddy understands from a young age that his condition is shameful, and he resents his family with increasing force throughout the novel.
Sex is one of great discoveries of youth and plays an important role in shaping the book. For Eddy, as for many gay men, this manifests itself in his failure to be aroused by women and his eventual confrontation with his attraction to men. Though labeled effeminate, Eddy tries hard to be a “tough guy,” to appease his mother and father’s expectations.
The book also addresses double-standards of masculinity in French society. When Eddy is caught engaging in sexual intercourse with his older male cousins by his mother, he is blamed exclusively, called “fairy” and “sissy” while his cousins’ reputations are untarnished.
The most beautiful moments in the novel are those when Eddy frees himself, just briefly, from his repression. One evening at a nightclub in a neighboring town, he brushes against a slightly older man. Sweaty, dancing, they push closer and closer together until Eddy can no longer pull away. Mr. Louis writes in exquisite detail, the perfect evocation of stuffy French clubs and timid yet burning desire.
Mr. Louis’ novel is by definition a coming-of-age story. However, it lacks the emotional force often associated with works of that genre. Rather, we get the sense that Eddy, or perhaps Mr. Louis, is not just chronologically distant from the story — he is also emotionally separate. He recounts his suffering in gruesome detail as a biologist might discuss a lab experiment. Mr. Louis seems to be more interested in the role of society in his misfortune than in any sort of personal journey.
This produces a strange effect. The writing style is flat and humorless, and equally so in French and in the new English translation. The vivid descriptions of their living conditions — for instance, of his mother’s miscarriage in the bathroom, totally unaware of her pregnancy — are sad and often repugnant. “The End of Eddy” is a case study in misery. And at the same time, the book is gripping.
While it is the story of Eddy, Mr. Louis’ novel compels us to consider the broader inequalities that persist in society. It is a call to pay attention to the communities most affected by economic hardship. And with the National Front now a serious contender in French presidential elections, those locales may indeed decide Europe’s political future.
No doubt, we will be seeing more of Edouard Louis in the future. And that, at least, is a good thing.
• Thom Murphy is a freelance writer living in the D.C. area. In the fall, he will enter the doctoral program in French at New York University.