It’s difficult to imagine a more wretched childhood than the one Édouard Louis describes in The End of Eddy—even if you go back to other literary examples such as Charles Dickens’. The first sentence of Louis’s “novel” is “From my childhood I have no happy memories.” And immediately after that sentence, there’s a description of an incident his main character experienced at school. Two boys approach him and spit in his face. One of them laughs and blurts out, “Look, right in his face, the little pussy,” introducing the issue of the boy’s masculinity, though he’s still in primary school. The spitting incident is repeated dozens, if not hundreds, of times during his next few years at school, exacerbated by the taunts of “faggot, fag, fairy, cocksucker, punk, pansy, sissy, wimp, girly boy, pussy, bitch, homo, fruit, poof, queer, or homosexual, gayboy.”
Things are no better for Eddy at home and, in fact, worse because the safety of the house is non-existent. The boy’s insight is profound: “A father reinforced his own masculine identity through his sons, to whom he was duty-bound to transmit his own virility, and my father was going to do it, make me into a tough guy, his pride as a man at stake.” Before that sentence, we have already observed his father, taking “newborn kittens and slip them into a plastic grocery bag and swing it against some cement edge until the bag was filled with blood and the meowing had ceased.” Or still another disgusting incident involving his father: “I had seen him butcher pigs in the yard, and drink the still-warm blood that he was collecting in order to make blood sausage (blood on his lips, his chin, his T-shirt) It’s the best, the blood you get from an animal right when it dies. The squeals of the dying pig as my father sliced its trachea could be heard throughout the village.”
Impossible to be a sensitive child under such circumstances. His father’s tough guy activity permeated every aspect of their lives—especially his treatment of his wife, Eddy’s older brothers, and younger siblings (brother and sister). They’re dirt poor, struggling to survive on their father’s factory salary in a depressed city in northern France. On the one brief occasion when Eddy’s mother gets a job (as a nurse’s aid at an old person’s home) to help supplement the father’s wages, she earns more than her husband does, so he quickly prohibits her from working. Thus, they struggle even more. Their house is a dump. There’s barely enough money for food. At the end of the month, they eat the fish his father catches because there is nothing else. The father’s drunk most of the time and finally—after an accident at the factory—he has to stop working and live on welfare. But he still denies his wife any work outside of the house.
It’s a wretched situation for the young, feminine boy—both at home and at school. He knows that he’s not like other boys. Sometimes when no one else is around, he wears his sister’s clothes. His mother is angry all the time, which is no surprise. Eddy remarks about his father, “He and I never had a real conversation.” Not even at the dinner table, since his father insisted that they watch TV and not speak.
By the time he is ten years old, Eddy has had sexual encounters with other boys. He pretends that he is a girl. One day, his mother accidentally observes one of these encounters and even though you might assume that she would try to conceal the incident, she not only tells her husband but all of their neighbors. Soon, everyone in the town treats him as deviant. Once they learn about what has happened, the boys at school spit on him and delight in physically beating him up. For a time, Eddy tries to convince himself that he is not interested in other boys, but girls, and he obsessively repeats to himself, Today I’m gonna be a tough guy.
There’s even a brief stage when he “dates” girls, hoping that he has discovered his masculinity. But he doesn’t.
The End of Eddy is a troubling book. At the beginning of this review I placed the word novel inside of quotation marks because the publisher describes the book as a novel, but that may have to do with issues of libel. I suspect the book is a memoir because of the beginning of the author’s brief biography: “Born Eddy Bellegueule in Hallencourt, France, in 1992, Édouard Louis is the author of two novels and the editor of a scholarly work on the social scientist Pierre Bourdieu.” The boy is called Eddie Bellegueule in The End of Eddy, which describes his attempts to run away from his family—the first time when he is only ten years old. He’s only about fourteen at the end of the story. You’ll have to discover what changes for him at the end of this haunting memoir and then fill in the remaining gaps for yourself.
But, still, one might recall Kurtz’s observation, “The horror! The horror!”
Édouard Louis: The End of Eddy
Trans by Michael Lucey
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 208 pp., $25