Ever since the twin surprises of Brexit and Donald Trump’s political rise, Western media has been obsessed with what’s going on in the minds of rural and working-class people. In America, this helped make a star of J.D. Vance, whose book, Hillbilly Elegy, is looked on as a kind of Rosetta Stone to the psyche of forgotten America.
In France, 24-year-old literary sensation Édouard Louis has played a similar role. During that country’s recent election — in which Emmanuel Macron defeated the right-wing populist Marine Le Pen — Louis’ autobiographical novel The End of Eddy was seen as a bulletin from the enraged heart of Le Pen country.
Yet Louis’ account of growing up gay and poor in a working-class village isn’t only a story about France. Just released in a highly readable translation by Michael Lucey, this painfully insightful tale of entrapment and escape could’ve easily been set in Michigan or West Virginia.
When we first meet Eddy Bellegueule, he’s being beaten up at school. It’s clear to everyone, especially him, that he doesn’t fit in. Secretly attracted to boys — with whom he starts having sex at a startlingly young age — Eddy’s shrieky voice and sway-hipped walk get him identified as gay, although, naturally, nobody calls him anything so gentle as “gay.”
Things are no easier at home, where his family struggles to make ends meet in their cramped house with concrete floors. His mother, who had her first child at 17, lives in a permanent state of rage punctuated by puffs of cigarette smoke. His father is a violent, hard-drinking factory worker who suffers vicious back pains from his job and eventually gets laid off. Both are disturbed by a son so unmanly that he doesn’t even like soccer. As Eddy wittily puts it, they treat his obvious gayness as if it was some weird art project that he does just to annoy them.
While Eddy’s parents are both vivid characters — Louis has a great ear for their patois — what makes the novel special is the way it expands outward. Louis shows how his parents’ values have been shaped by a profound sense of powerlessness shared with their neighbors in the village of Hallencourt, a blue-collar community bleak with unemployment, alcoholism, violence, racism and a deadening sense that life goes nowhere.