It’s difficult enough for many gay people to come out, but for a boy to grow up gay in a working class family in rural France presents its own unique challenges. Eddy, the hero of debut author Édouard Louis’s semi-autobiographical novel, comes of age in the late 90s and early 2000s in a large family that treads close to the poverty line. Almost all the young men in their small town within the Picardy region work in the local factory once they are legally allowed to leave school at an early age. They are expected to conform to a certain type of masculinity: hard-drinking, aggressive and sexually voracious. For naturally effeminate Eddy this presents a problem at an early age when he’s branded a “faggot” – a label he can never shrug off no matter how hard he works to self consciously appear to be a tough guy. His perceptive story recounts the themes and individuals he contends with during his development towards becoming an adult who eventually accepts his nature and finds a place where he can achieve a sense of belonging. It’s filled with the brutal and intimate reality of his journey and makes statements which are at once deeply emotional and highly political.
It’s striking how for much of his early childhood Eddy is well-liked and admired for the things which make his personality unique: polite, intelligent and creative. Yet, at a certain point, these qualities don’t fit into the standard behavior associated with young men. He’s mocked by his family, friends and the other children at school – two of whom regularly and brutally bully him. Having no way to defend himself against these attacks he resolves (in a way he later realizes is akin to Jean Genet) “I thought it would be better if I seemed like a happy kid. So I became the staunchest ally of this silence, and, in a certain way, complicit in this violence.” This is the point at which his life becomes sharply divided; there is the private life and the public face he shows to the rest of the world. Rather than living freely and naturally he becomes self consciousness and begins to modify his behavior to try to conform to those around him. Of course, it doesn’t work. It leads only to humiliation, secrecy and painful self-loathing. All he wants is to fit in, but he’s uniformly rejected.
While things are often difficult for any queer teen navigating through a largely heterosexual society, there are unique hardships for those from a socio-economic background like Eddy’s. He and the people around him have been excluded from the narrative of society. The working class are often ignored and scorned. The author proposes that this causes many to become insular and disdain any “outsiders” or the values of mainstream intellectual society: “To philosophise meant talking like the class enemy, the haves, the rich folk.” It leads to intense levels of homophobia as well as racism and sexism. Eddy concludes that “the crime was not having done something, it was being something. And especially, looking like one of them.” The “them” are the people who don’t conform to the conventional masculine mode which is stringently reinforced in every aspect of this working class community. Because the novel is written in retrospect from the point when Eddy has become Édouard, he’s able to understand the context of his upbringing. However, the physical and emotional pain from his difficult and warped development remain sharp in his memory. The author thoughtfully unpacks the social milieu of Eddy’s life which leads him to feeling like he has no options to leave or find support elsewhere because this is the only home he knows.
There are certain kinds of trauma from which a person can never recover from. Eddy’s many justified grievances will no doubt remain with him throughout his life and the anger he feels is palpable in this narrative. Not only was his self worth viciously lowered by trying desperately to conform, but he suffered numerous painful injustices. These ranged from being mocked by his mother for having asthma while she stubbornly smoked around him to the broken window in his bedroom which was left unrepaired for the majority of his teenage years. Then there are the atrocious contradictions of the people around him. He engaged in willing sexual activities with his male cousin and friends, yet he is the one publicly shamed for participating where the others are not. Also, his father’s homophobia and racism which he continuously vocalizes are forgotten on a couple of occasions when presented with a real gay person at a party or a black man he befriends in another city. Nevertheless, at home his father continued to berate him for his effeminate nature. At times the story feels all the more painful for the way it relates these details as the narrator struggles to make intellectual sense of them while holding the full fury of his emotions at bay.
It feels important that we have more books like “The End of Eddy” which pay tribute to the perspective of those who have been excluded from mainstream society. Notably, novels by Lisa McInerny and Kerry Hudson also sympathetically address this perspective of the working class. It’s been speculated that it was primarily this section of society that voted for Brexit and have elected deeply conservative leaders. Most often it’s their vote which influences government policy to become more insular in focus. Certainly this seems to be the perspective which Zadie Smith proposed in her article ‘Fences’ published in The New York Review. It’s also vital that we continue to have more stories from younger queer generations such as Chinelo Okparanta’s “Under the Udala Trees” and Garrard Conley’s “Boy Erased” where homosexuals still feel intensely pressured to live as heterosexuals. Luckily Eddy was able to eventually go to university, accept his nature and articulate his experience, but there must be countless people like Eddy who have fatally never been able to leave or speak about their constrictive circumstances. However – and this is really important - you don’t need to read “The End of Eddy” because it’s worthy. Read it because it’s a devastatingly honest and moving story in itself.