The End of Eddy by Édouard Louis
The End of Eddy is a work of fiction that really isn’t. Its compliment would be a memoir that was really fiction. But Édouard Louis writing fiction from which the nonfiction breaks out is more interesting. Moreover, “Eddy Bellegueule”, the name of the first-person narrator in the story, is the original name of author Édouard Louis.
The End of Eddy reads like an extended, intense essay, dashed off in white heat. It’s the kind of intensity that would be very difficult to sustain for more than a few pages but Louis maintains the energy for 192 pages in the English translation. I thought of the print in the book as turning black from the white heat of its paper pages. At one point, Louis’ Eddy says that he is crying while he is writing. That is writing toughness. Édouard Louis is one of the toughest gay writers that I have encountered in literature. He makes Hemingway look soft. It’s a first novel.
This autobiographical novel is about the poverty of life in a working class village in Northern France. The material poverty of the place is striking enough but the self-defeating ignorance is worse. When a window pane in Eddy’s bedroom breaks, it’s replaced after a time with cardboard that keeps going rotten. Although Eddy would like a rug on the concrete floor of the bedroom, his mother says that would be bad for his asthma. The actual reason is that the family can’t afford a rug. The family drinks milk when they can’t afford food and gathers wood for fuel to bear up in the cold Northern winter. His mother treats the wood gathering like a game her children would enjoy playing, anything to ease the shame. Nicotine-filled rooms, getting drunk, brawling, TV, TV and more TV.
Jobs that nobody else would want end up crippling you. If you’re a guy and bring home a different girlfriend each month, you’re a real man. If you’re a girl and bring home a different boyfriend each month, you’re a whore. Eddy’s mother wants to prepare a salad or cook beans occasionally for dinner, but her husband would yell at her if she did. Carbs and meat are the family diet by paternal degree. And no talking during meals. When Eddy learns that at his friend Amélie’s that her mother talked about Eleanor of Aquitaine over dinner, he glimpses a better world, a planet where this is possible.
Eddie hides in a hallway at school where he is regularly bashed by two kid bullies. He hides in order to be bashed in private, because worse than the bashing would be everybody knowing about it. He takes on two fake girlfriends to make himself straight.
The End of Eddy is the story of escape from the intersectionality of being poor and ignorant. In the 19th century, escape from Devil’s Island sounded very exciting. In the 21st century, escaping from the working class requires talent, being lucky and an unconventional degree of courage. The “toughness” needed for everyday survival can be the shackles that hold you down. There’s no attempt at egalitarianism here. There are lives that are better and lives that are worse. Égalité and Fraternité seemed to have been taken out of the French tripartite equation with only Liberté left.
Édouard Louis’ identity, as gay, as intellectual, as a person, baptized with bashing and the incomprehension of his community, ends with laughter and the solidarity of friends. Since he improbably succeeds in escaping to another planet, the planet called “upper middle class”, it’s understandable that it’s the end of “Eddy”. But since the journey was so rough, I admit skimming to the back of the book to make sure that he made it.