“The End of Eddy” is the first novel by a young French writer named Édouard Louis, who is garnering attention around the world. Just 24 years old, Louis has already edited a volume of essays about the philosopher Pierre Bourdieu and co-wrote a leftist manifesto that appeared on the front page of Le Monde and was subsequently reprinted in the Los Angeles Review of Books. “The End of Eddy,” which was a bestseller in France, where it was first published in 2014, is labeled a novel, but it reads like a harrowing memoir, and the author has said publicly that “every word of this book is true, every scene of this book I have experienced.” The book has been translated into 20 languages and is now available in the United States.
Eddy, the narrator, describes at length his miserable adolescence, which was an unrelenting gantlet of abuse.
The book begins: “From my childhood I have no happy memories.” His abusive father dropped out of school to work in a factory like most of his peers, tough guys who drank, fought and passed out more or less every night. He is unloving with Eddy, a gay boy whose gestures and high-pitched voice make him an object of bullying by almost everyone he encounters. His mother stands by her man, not her queer son, and Eddy is increasingly bereft, lonely and wounded:
“As I grew up, I could feel my father’s gaze, when it fell on me, grow heavier and heavier, I could feel the terror mounting in him, his powerlessness in the face of the monster he had created and whose oddity became clearer with each passing day. The whole situation seemed too much for my mother, and quite early on she gave up trying to do anything about it. I would often imagine that one day she was going to disappear, leaving a note on the table to explain that she had had enough, that she hadn’t asked for this, for a son like me, that she wasn’t able to live this kind of a life, that she was invoking her right to abandon me.”
Eddy withdraws into a cool shell of inwardness, biding his time, pretending to be unperturbed. “I wandered without seeming to wander,” he says, “walking with a sure step, always pretending I had something specific to do, someplace to go, and I did such a good job at this that no one could have told I was being shunned.” But his torment gets only worse, culminating in a scene of complete humiliation.
Finally, he flees, as young gay people everywhere have long been compelled to do, to a more urban, safer environment. Eddy Bellegueule disappears; a Parisian Édouard Louis emerges out of the wreckage, damaged and vulnerable but nonetheless a figure of power for those who see the miracle he represents. Having evaded wretchedness, the gay young man making up his shining life in the city is one of civilization’s wonders, and Édouard Louis is a new, inspiring real-life example of such transfiguration.
What is most impressive about “The End of Eddy” is that its author turned himself into a man capable of creating such a vivid and honest self-portrait. Telling the truth about growing up gay among bigoted, bullying people requires bravery and brio; shaping that story into a memorable dramatic narrative takes not only nerve but intelligence, skill and a mysterious jolt of je ne sais quoi.
Edmund White’s 1982 autobiographical novel, “A Boy’s Own Story,” is a famously unnerving account of growing up gay surrounded by antipathetic Americans in the 1950s. White, who chose to live for many years in Paris, went on to write the authoritative English-language biography of Jean Genet, a Frenchman whose wild, wayward gay life was likewise the primary subject of his own books. Louis is situated now in this line of powerfully, almost scarily, honest gay storytellers who need make nothing up, since their lives — especially their lonely childhoods — provide them with material beyond the scope of the imagination.
By Édouard Louis
Translated from the French by Michael Lucey
Farrar Straus Giroux. 192 pp. $23