'The End Of Eddy' Tells Of Growing Up Poor And Gay In Working-Class France

May 26, 2017
Originally published on May 29, 2017 12:37 pm

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.

Hallencourt is the kind of place where the high school has the same architecture as the local factory, because you're supposed to go straight from one to the other. When Eddy's sister dreams of studying to be a midwife, everyone makes her feel this is too grand for someone like her — better off to be a cashier.

As prisoners of economic forces they don't understand and can't control, the locals learn to take pride in toughing out miserable circumstances, and they loathe the style of the political and economic elite. When Eddy uses the term "have dinner" instead of his father's inevitable "chow down," he's mocked for pretending to be part of a higher social class.

In most classic novels about poor boys rising beyond their beginnings, the road to freedom is paved by a love of books, and Eddy is bookish by his family standards. He writes with artful precision about everything from his floundering attempts to de-gay himself by dating girls to the way Airness tracksuits brand village guys as lower-class.

Ironically, what helps Eddy escape is the very thing that gets him abused: his gayness. Where the men around him, including his older brother, affirm their dignity by honoring a tough-guy image of masculinity — with its drinking, fighting, porn-watching and physical labor — Eddy is immune to that image's allure. There's an abyss between the name Eddy — chosen by his dad because it sounds tough — and who he actually is. He needs to get away.

And eventually, he does. I won't say how, but The End of Eddy ends with the beginning of a journey, one that will lead him to change his name from Eddy Bellegueule to the classier Édouard Louis. He will study in Paris, edit a scholarly book about sociology and appear on French talk shows where he'll explain how, even though he was treated cruelly, his parents and the Hallencourt villagers aren't intrinsically cruel. Instead, like so many people who feel abused by our globalized world, they were merely passing the abuse along.

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Our critic at large John Powers has a review of an autobiographical novel about growing up poor and gay in a northern French village. When the book "The End Of Eddy" was published in France in 2014, it made its 21-year-old author Edouard Louis a cultural star.

"The End Of Eddy" became a big best-seller and was translated into 20 languages. The English version has just been released here, and John says that the novel is as relevant in America as it is in its home country.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Ever since the twin surprises of Brexit and Donald Trump's election, the Western media has been obsessed with what's going on in the minds of rural and working-class people. In America, this has made a star of JD Vance, whose book "Hillbilly Elegy" is treated as a kind of Rosetta Stone to the psyche of forgotten America. In France, a similar role has been played by Edouard Louis, a 24-year-old literary sensation.

During the recent election in which Emmanuel Macron defeated the right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, his autobiographical novel "The End Of Eddy" was seen as a bulletin from the enraged heart of Le Pen country. Yet, Louie's account of growing up gay and poor in a working class village isn't a story only about France. Just released in a highly readable translation by Michael Lucey, this painfully insightful tale of entrapment and escape could have 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 has sex at a startlingly young age, Eddy's born with mannerisms - a shrieky voice, waving hands, a sway-hipped walk that 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 his son so unmanly that he doesn't even like soccer. As Eddy widley 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.

Hallencourt is the kind of place where the high school has the same architecture as the local factory because you're supposed to go straight from one to the other. When Eddy's sister dreams of studying to be a midwife, everyone makes her feel that this is too grand for someone like her, better off to be a cashier. As prisoners of economic forces they don't understand and can't control, the locals learn to take pride in toughing out miserable circumstances, and they loathe the style of the political and economic elite. When Eddy uses the term have dinner, instead of his father's inevitable chow down, he's mocked for pretending to be part of a higher social class.

In most classic novels about poor boys rising beyond their beginnings, the road to freedom is paved by a love of books. Now, Eddy is bookish by his family standards. He writes with artful precision about everything from his floundering attempts to de-gay himself by dating girls to the way the village guys' wearing of earnest tracksuits brands them as lower class. Ironically, what helps Eddy escape is the very thing that gets him abused, his gayness. Where the men around him including his older brother affirm their dignity by honoring a tough guy image of masculinity with its drinking, fighting, porn watching and physical labor, Eddy is immune to that image's allure.

There's an abyss between the name Eddy chosen by his dad because it sounds tough and who he actually is. He needs to get away, and eventually he does. I won't say how, but "The End Of Eddy" ends with the beginning of a journey, one that will lead him to change his name from Eddy Bellegueule to the classier Edouard Louis. He will study in Paris, edit a scholarly book about sociology and appear on the French talk shows where he will explain how even though he was treated cruelly, his parents and the villagers aren't intrinsically cruel. Instead, like so many people who feel abused by our globalized world, they were merely passing the abuse along.

GROSS: John Powers is film and TV critic for Vogue and vogue.com. He reviewed "The End Of Eddy" by Edouard Louis. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Senator Al Franken. He's written a new memoir that explains how he went from his work on "Saturday Night Live" to his work in politics and how after years of learning how to be funny, he had to learn how not to be. I hope you'll join us.

I want to correct an error I made last Thursday in the first broadcast of our show, when re-introducing my guest New York Times reporter Matthew Rosenberg, we were talking about the investigations into General Michael Flynn who was an adviser on the Trump campaign and became president Trump's first national security adviser. I said that Trump knew when he appointed Flynn that Flynn had failed to register as a paid lobbyist for Turkey and had covered up his calls with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. What I should have said was members of Trump's team knew weeks before the inauguration that Flynn was under investigation for not disclosing his work for Turkey. It's unclear exactly when Trump found out about the Russia calls, but we do know that White House counsel Don McGahn was informed about them a few days after the inauguration.

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