The End of Eddy: it doesn't get better but we survive
by Drew Rowsome-
Edouard Louis' The End of Eddy states that it doesn't get better. Not for gay kids and, by extension, not for anyone who is outside of the normal we all believe in but doesn't exist. The people of the small town where Louis, who was then the 'Eddy' of the title, grew up are poor and exhibit most of the stereotypes expected: they are violent, racist, television-addicted alcoholics who thrive on gossip. Perversely they take a kind of pride in their suffering, turning their embarrassment and feelings of helplessness and inferiority into a form of ecstatic martyrdom. Just as perversely, that is the process that Eddy uses to deal with his gayness.
If that sounds bleak and depressing, it is. But Louis writes with an urgency and a style that perfectly meshes the matter of fact with the gorgeously poetic. A horrifying event is described with small chilling details that are fleshed out with unobtrusive but telling flourishes. Occasionally he uses the voices of the townspeople as they narrate their own history fables, and the reader sees where this skill comes from. There are digressions and stories within stories but it is the little things, the odd specifics, that sting and make The End of Eddy so vivid.
The End of Eddy begins with Eddy being brutalized by two bullies. Over the course of the few years that the book covers, the bullies and their escalating attacks re-occur adding up to an almost overwhelming feeling of helplessness. Eddy's specific helplessness is a metaphor for the entire town's feeling of being unable to escape their fate of work, suffer and die, it is almost preordained. Eddy turns the pain into sexual fantasy, that becomes a masochistic reality in brutal scenes that were, despite the addictive prose, hard to read. And his chance at revenge, a truly transcendent moment, falls flat and though it is his chance to escape, his conditioning follows him and the cycle isn't broken. As much as the reader roots for Eddy, Louis insists that it doesn't get better.
Whether The End of Eddy is in actuality a harrowing memoir or a fictionalized memoir is of no consequence (though it must be noted that it is billed as "a novel"). The book was a huge hit in France where it was originally published and that probably has less to do with the gay coming of age that is the backbone and more with the bitter critique of the class system. What is crucial is that it feels real. Except for one small mis-step with the use of cellphones, all of the characters are fully fleshed, the sense of a living breathing locale is solid, and Eddy's agony is not overplayed, it just is. Some scenes made we wince because of the frank depiction of poverty and horror, some because of the resultant psychological damage. Maybe we just want The End of Eddy to be fiction because if it is real, it is too awful to contemplate.
Where the trauma of coming out and the attempts to fit into a world that vehemently rejects you, intersected with memories of mine that I would prefer to forget, or when Eddy made choices that from tragic experience I knew were wrong, The End of Eddy was like salt in wounds I was pretending not to have. When the experiences didn't intersect, I still ached with empathy, Louis' writing is that powerful. He catches the nuances of his love/hate relationship with his father but also implies a deeper history, a vague understanding of how his father came to be who he is. And how their similarities are a trap that, that predestination again, seems inescapable.
While the events of The End of Eddy are tragic and horrific, there is a thread of hope that runs through it, like a Grimm's fairy tale that promises reward for all the suffering. Once begun, it is impossible to stop reading, carried along by Louis' deceptively prose and equally deceptive wandering plot. There are nuggets of beauty and fragments of philosophical pondering that hint that Louis has survived and risen above. But if one wants a happy ending, one needs to stop before the epilogue. Louis switches voices and quickly, with a complete lack of compassion, dashes all hope. It is an unforgettable ending to a tour de force of a memoir. And an essential addition to the canon of gay literature.