Tough Guys

Tough Guys

In The End of Eddy, Édouard Louis uses literature to enliven working-class society in a way that neither sociology nor history can.

A teenager in the factory town of Hénin-Beaumont, northern France. Photo by Vincent Jarousseau, from the book L’Illusion nationale : Deux ans d’enquête dans les villes FN. © Éditions des Arènes Paris, 2017.

The End of Eddy
by Édouard Louis
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017, 208 pp.

Cornered by two school bullies, young Eddy Bellegueule is branded before his story begins. “You’re the faggot, right?” they say, “inscrib[ing] it on me permanently like stigmata, those marks that the Greeks would carve with a red-hot iron or a knife into the bodies of deviant individuals.” This is the third page of The End of Eddy, a novel that minces few words. Page one opens with the bullies’ spit dripping “thick and yellow” from Eddy’s cheek as he decides if they’ll beat him. By page five they do, like most days.

Things are little better at home in Hallencourt, a French factory village. Eddy’s father is a “tough guy” who wields drunken virility with the same desperation as generations of factory workers before him. He hates blacks, Arabs, and especially homosexuals. Readers first meet him as someone who kills unwanted kittens by beating them against concrete.

Yet The End of Eddy—an autobiographical novel written by Édouard Louis, formerly Eddy Bellegueule—looks upon butchers and bullies with striking empathy, less as brutes than as actors forced by working-class life into preordained roles. As “the faggot,” Eddy is beaten to the bottom of dramatis personae because that’s what “tough guys” do in this tragedy. To survive, Eddy tries to don the tough-guy costume but fails entirely. Like the crippled scapegoats of ancient Greece, he’s beaten and ultimately exiled in a bid for purification during social crisis. Everyone sees through Eddy’s act but misses their own.

Some call Louis the next Émile Zola, but really, he is doing much better. Zola’s first major work, an odd goulash of stories gathered into Contes à Ninon (1864), had modest success when its initial 1,500 copies sold out after a year. By contrast, the 2014 release of Louis’s debut novel, En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule, a memoir of the author’s impoverished and closeted childhood in rural France as well as a sociological study of its underclass, surprised even his publishers when it vaulted to the top of the year’s fiction lists and sold over 300,000 copies. The book “foist[ed] Louis into the center of French literary life” and “ignited a debate on class and inequality,” the Paris Review noted early on.

There is now a much anticipated English translation. For the Anglo world, The End of Eddy comes amid a chorus of works that have emerged in the past year on the “white working class”—Nancy Isenberg’s history of White Trash, Arlie Hochschild’s sociological account of Strangers in Their Own Land, and J.D Vance’s pop-ethnography, Hillbilly Elegy. Though himself a student of sociology and disciple of Bourdieu, Louis uses his literary gifts to enliven working-class society in a way that neither sociology nor history can. After the 2014 publication of En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule, he called upon other writers to follow his lead, co-authoring a manifesto that demanded a literature to “bring the left to life.”

The End of Eddy does so in a style both plainspoken and visceral, using Louis’s childhood trials as a window onto working-class society. In bare prose, Louis writes that his bullies “laughed when my face began to turn purple from lack of oxygen,” noting that such was “a natural response from working-class people, the simplicity of people who possess little and enjoy laughing.” Reflecting that their breath smelled “of sour milk, dead animals,” he surmises that “like me, they probably never brushed their teeth. . . . Dentists were expensive and as usual a lack of money came to seem like a matter of choice.” As a writer, Louis presents his violent youth with all the sensationalism of a spelling bee. As a sociologist he’s equally staid, explaining that such suffering is uneventful for a gay kid in a factory town.

Working-class masculinity tortures Eddy as his story unfolds. The village honors tough guys like his father, hypersexual lovers of soccer and alcohol, haters of foreigners and homosexuals. Boys experiment with same-sex intimacy, but with utmost secrecy and under the premise of “playing the women.” When one such experiment is discovered, the boys renounce Eddy in public to preserve their own reputations. “But the crime was not having done something, it was being something. And, especially, looking like one of them,” Louis reflects.

As an author if not as a child, Louis avoids total hatred for these tough guys because of his socialism, channeling his experiences into a study of the poverty that provokes this toxic masculinity. He writes of an uncle who copes with a vanishing horizon of opportunity by drinking himself into paralysis. He remembers how his father’s back pain, prompted by decades of factory work, drives him to tears, as it did his father and grandfather before him. Both find an outlet in racism, sexism, homophobia, disdain for “slackers” who milk welfare checks—all an ill-aimed grab for power by men who have little of it.

Such insights on poverty and working-class sexuality are shrewd—even magnanimous for someone so harassed by these forces—yet, on their own, nothing very new; Louis is better when he dramatizes their entanglement. For his working-class characters, there’s something bourgie about queerness. When Eddy’s cousin is confounded by a lawyer’s legal jargon, “he didn’t feel the violence the prosecutor was exercising, the class violence that had excluded him from the world of education, the violence that had, in the end, led him to the courtroom where he now stood. In fact he must have thought that the prosecutor was ridiculous. That he spoke like a faggot.” By the time Eddy escapes his village for a middle-class education, even he has internalized these norms. “They would all have been called fags at my middle school,” he writes of his new classmates, and “I say to myself What a bunch of fucking faggots Which is also a kind of relief Maybe I’m not gay, maybe things aren’t the way I thought they were, maybe I’ve just always had a bourgeois body that was trapped in the world of my childhood.” The bourgeois and the homosexual blend into a common scapegoat as capitalism compensates poor men with the role of tough guy. The bourgeoisie are smarter and richer, it whispers, but they’re still queer.

Those who believe in a firm barrier between art and propaganda might find Louis’s socialism ham-handed or pedantic, and even sympathetic readers may agree that a lighter touch would have made The End of Eddy a richer novel, if a messier work of sociology. At times the book seems like a model skeleton in a medical school, snugly connected yet stripped of flesh that could distract from illustrating a certain structure—in Louis’s case, working-class queerness.

Louis differs from Elena Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgaard in this respect, two authors with whom he is too often compared. Ferrante and Knausgaard are our great Proustians in their love of memory’s fine textures; Louis’s political aims narrow the range and flatten the depth of his retrospection. If Proust drew a dazzling past from a madeleine soaked in lime-blossom tea, Knausgaard from Norwegian Clorox, and Ferrante from a copper bathtub, Louis fixates on a uniformly cruel past—all rotten teeth and dead kittens—to make a political point. The price is a novel that can’t contend with Knausgaard and Ferrante aesthetically; closing Eddy and opening My Brilliant Friend feels like leaving an école lecture-hall and starting the weekend.

But John Updike’s first rule for criticism comes to mind here: “try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.” Louis wants novels that “bring the left to life,” and he believes that writers who view politics as “a violation of the purity of literature” simply miss the bourgeois presumptions behind their aesthetic. “All authors are political, even if they don’t realize it,” he remarked in an interview with the Paris Review last year. “[B]eing apolitical merely reinforces the status quo, supporting the powerful over the weak. Many writers don’t want to know how to speak about politics because they’re from the bourgeoisie, and they’ve been protected from the rough edges of political change.” Maybe. But whether or not one agrees that novels can only either hide or proclaim their politics, Louis’s portrait of working-class sexuality is a forceful and welcome addition to modern protest literature.

Eddy’s political effectiveness comes from forcing readers to inhabit two hundred pages of its protagonist’s vulnerability, only granting escape after all efforts at conformity have failed. Louis reverses the trajectory of his mentor Didier Eribon’s Returning to Reims (2009), in which the fellow sociologist (and author of the still-reigning biography of Foucault) rediscovers his working-class roots when he returns to his hometown after his father’s death. “My desire to assume and assert my homosexuality,” Eribon reflects, “coincided within my personal trajectory with my shutting myself up inside what I might call a class closet.”

Louis starts at the beginning, when Eddy’s sexuality makes him a target within a working-class environment. The novel ends when Eddy flees into the bourgeois world of university and embraces his sexuality, where a conventional liberal imagination might conclude with celebration. But for Louis this is precisely the problem: capitalism brutalizes a working class that lashes out at its own most marginalized members, who in turn must either face barbarity or retreat. With this dearth of options, a narrative of heroic escape is explicitly rejected. “I’ve wanted to show here that my flight was not the result of a project that I had had in mind for a long time,” he writes, “but rather that escape was the only option left to me after a series of defeated attempts to change who I was. Flight was at first something I experienced as a kind of failure . . . to succeed would have meant being like everyone else.”

The titular “end of Eddy”—which could be translated from the French as the more active “putting an end to Eddy”—is not a feat of self-reliance, but a failure to inhabit assigned roles. “Every morning in the bathroom getting ready I would repeat the same phrase to myself over and over again so many times that it ceased making any sense, becoming nothing but a series of syllables, of sounds. Then I’d stop and start over again. Today I’m gonna be a tough guy,” Louis writes, finding it “hideous and ridiculous, this sentence that went everywhere with me.” Eddy tries to date women, assume masculine airs, memorize soccer stats. Nothing works. His departure into a bourgeois world is not escape but exile.

At the novel’s close, Eddy performs in a village play shortly before he leaves for good. To his horror, the two school bullies are among the audience. Yet for a moment, art cuts through the village drama:

When I was finished, they both stood up and yelled exuberantly Bravo Eddy, bravo! They started chanting my name Eddy, Eddy until all the villagers present joined in, around three hundred of them who were all suddenly chanting my name, clapping their hands in rhythm and staring at me with delight. Getting everyone to quiet down was difficult. . . . I didn’t see them after the show. I think that was the last time in my life that I ever saw them.

It is tempting to read this as triumph. Eddy wins over his tormentors, they acknowledge his humanity, the soundtrack swells. But Eddy can’t remain with his fans, who will likely transform back into tough guys at midnight.

The villagers return to this tragedy for roles they didn’t choose. We learn, for instance, that Eddy’s father wasn’t always a tough guy. As a teenager he once defended a gay man against mocking villagers and befriended an Arab man when he attempted his own escape from village life. “He told his boss to go fuck himself, and it wasn’t an easy thing to do, you know people around here never go anywhere,” Eddy’s mother reflects. But, Eddy observes, “his past caught up with him, as if despite his best efforts there was no way to escape.” Through literature, Louis transfigures a kitten-smashing homophobe into a teen cheated of a better future, cornered and maimed by capitalism.

If life in a factory town has pounded Louis’s father into a tough guy, it has likewise beaten the love out of Eddy. Upon receiving word of his acceptance to art school, he flees his family at once. “I didn’t want to be around them,” Louis writes, “I had already left their world behind.” This new opportunity is more luck than pluck. Everyone fails in a factory town, and Eddy most of all, an exile branded with scars.

Kenyon Gradert is a Volkswagen fellow at Universität Heidelberg.