in review: The End of Eddy
The End of Eddy
by Édouard Louis
Publication Date: May 2, 2017
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
The End of Eddy is an autobiographical account of author Édouard Louis’s life as a gay youth growing up in Hallencourt, a small town in rural France. The story is a harrowing collection of vignettes presented in not-quite-chronological order—they swirl in and around Eddy’s family and friends, his life at home and at school, and, most importantly, around the events that come to mark Eddy’s growing sense of his homosexuality. Although somewhat difficult to delve into initially, the haphazard arrangement allows for a thorough submersion into Eddy’s childhood, experienced like unpleasant memories bubbling to the surface as Louis probes deeper and deeper into the recesses of his psyche.
The contours of the story will feel familiar to many in the LGBT community; as with all stories of this nature, it is a story of anguish that is sure to bring up memories of similar experiences for many readers. I was not spared from my own memories while reading Louis’s memoir, and was in fact surprised by how similar my own childhood in rural Connecticut was to Louis’s life across the ocean. I was reminded of my own regular encounters with bullies, and the subconscious complicity that drove me to interact with them, as if I’d secretly desired being tormented, or, as Eddy remarks, was too afraid of the consequences of avoiding them. I saw myself in the taunts from peers who preyed on the gawky and effeminate, and I saw my own father in Eddy’s, not just in the way he berates his son for a lack of manliness but in the way he breaks down crying when Eddy tries to run away. It would be hard to say I enjoyed these scenes, but there is comfort in the strength of seeing your own experiences reflected in the lives of others, and celebration in surmounting such hardships.
Louis’s insight is notable, capturing in vivid psychological detail not only his own attitudes and behaviors but those of the people around him. “I eventually started hanging out with a couple boys from the village,” he writes. “If I called them my buddies, the gang, anyone could have told that this was pure fantasy, and that I was actually an isolated unit orbiting around them.” The fraught tension Eddy experiences when sharing space with men is represented with unflinching honesty, and the anguish he suffers when watching his peers partake in male bonding activities that he cannot share in is palpable. He presents in uncompromising detail the discomfort of having his friends try to coerce him into watching porn, and the secret agony he hides while watching his classmates get drunk and naked, howling at the moon together, oblivious to each other’s bodies. Of course, Eddy must refrain from participating, using heterosexuality as an excuse that nobody, least of all himself, buys into.
What sets this novel apart from so many other gay coming-of-age stories is the way Louis ties his experience to the poverty of the community. He casts a keen sociological eye to the way that attitudes and behaviors are shaped. He writes that his mother “didn’t realize that her family, her parents, her brothers and sisters, even her children, pretty much everyone in the village, had had the same problems, and what she called mistakes were, in fact, no more and no less than the perfect realization of the normal course of things.” These mistakes, as she puts it, would be familiar to many downtrodden Americans: teenage pregnancy, alcoholism, unemployment. “I could have gone further with my education,” she insists, “I could’ve gotten a credential.” Instead, she’d “made it through and had a bunch of beautiful kids.” The insistence on her own agency—I could have done it, but chose not to—is so emblematic of human nature that you almost want to believe her. (This, of course, is why low-income whites vote Republican.) He writes that his neighbors, “who had even less money and a house that was always dirty and falling apart, were the object of my mother’s scorn... they belonged to that segment of local inhabitants who were called slackers, people who lived off welfare, sat on their asses all day.” One wishes that the actual French were presented, so we could see just how closely the original mirrors the translation, the sentiment feels so familiar. At the same time, many of the book’s vernacular translations come across as dated and stilted, occasionally calling into question the authenticity of conversations; the reader’s belief is momentarily displaced.
While the book succeeds for Louis’s acuity, it struggles for his writing. The characters’ thoughts and dialogue intertwine clumsily with the narrative, inserted via italics in ham-fisted ways that push the boundaries of readability. Perhaps this technique works better in the French, but it comes across poorly in the translation. Worse, Eddy’s attitude is almost unbearably pretentious. The way he looks down on his family for their shortfalls while adopting mannerisms and behaviors that he ascribes to an enlightened, smarter, wealthier class does little to gain sympathy for his character. One has to wonder if the young age of the author, a mere 24-years-old, might explain the unpleasant tone and half-boiled structure of the book. For a character so readily sympathetic to come across as unlikeable is an astonishing achievement.
In the end, readers looking to probe the complexity of adolescent homosexuality will find much to like about The End of Eddy. Louis remains uncomfortably close to the incidents of his youth, and his recollections are freshly painful in ways that may elicit masochistic pleasures of rediscovery in the reader. Although it is difficult to recommend this book to everyone, those that identify with the protagonist—and those looking to broaden their understanding of the troubles that young gay men face—will not be disappointed.