Hallencourt, the derelict, poverty-stricken town where Édouard Louis’s The End of Eddy is set, is less than 100 miles from Paris, but it feels light years away. For generations, life in the town has revolved around the local factory. Workers clock in for day shifts and night shifts to ensure it’s staffed around the clock. Most people, including the main character’s parents, see their children’s destinies as already decided; only time separates the boys growing up in the region from beginning factory work, just like their fathers and grandfathers did decades before. The town is of course barren and grey, but its most distinctive feature is “dampness.” This damp—a byproduct of industrial smog mixing with moisture from the nearby ponds—is omnipresent, and repeated mentions more than illustrate Louis’s disgust. Readers feel it almost viscerally. These descriptions set the tone for The End of Eddy’s equally brutal pronouncements on Hallencourt’s people and their behaviors. Louis wrote The End of Eddy at only 21, and the novel hews closely to his own hardscrabble upbringing in a declining French factory town. Brutally and unsparingly he alternates between describing the hardships plaguing France’s working poor and the hardships of gay adolescence that plauge Eddy Belleguele, the novel’s young protagonist and Louis’s stand-in.
By the novel’s 1990s, factory work has become increasingly scant in the region. Rising unemployment has sowed a deep sense of ennui, altering the town’s already frail social fabric and spawning widespread addiction, violence, and resentment. Does this sound familiar? Like the declining industrial towns of Middle America that turned to Trump, these stretches of France went overwhelmingly to the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in this year’s presidential election. Eddy’s father, Jacky Belleguele, embodies the effect that gradual economic decline has had on the region’s white working class men. After a back injury leaves him unable to continue working at the factory, Jacky is branded a “slacker” by townspeople who, Louis argues, have come to routinely use others—poor people, queer people, ethnic minorities—to shore up their own endangered position on the social ladder. Jacky “had in fact tried to find work, but had gotten discouraged around the hundredth rejection,” we’re told, but he is derided as though his situation was of his own making. “It’s been four years since he had a job, he can’t even feed his wife and kids,” people gossip.
Even when money is tight, Jacky feels ambivalent about his wife Brigitte working; not being the family’s sole breadwinner is one of many emasculations he has a hard time stomaching. The Bellegueles scrape by on welfare checks and “credit” to pay for the most basic of necessities, which the family often cannot afford. “We had no fucking money,” Eddy remembers, looking back, “and all the time we had to humiliate ourselves asking for credit or going to the food bank for food.” Humiliation begins at an early age.
The Belleguele parents often contextualize this kind of humiliation by describing French society in us-versus-them terms. There are “the haves, the rich folk” who live elsewhere, speak and behave in “fancy ways,” graduate from universities and frequent the theater. And then there are the “ordinary,” who play soccer and drink beer, repeatedly saying that they “know how to have a good time.” This class-consciousness lurks throughout the book’s description of life in poverty, but pride stops people in Hallencourt from acknowledging how the system they were born into has given them very little control over their lives. Instead, the men of the town try to combat their shame by going to extreme lengths to, in Louis’s sarcastic terms, “embody all the much-touted masculine values.”
The End of Eddy is littered with beautifully written displays of these “much-touted masculine values,” ugly, self-conscious rituals, that range from absurd to tragic. Because life leaves them little else on which to stake their pride, in many scenes, men in Hallencourt—everyone from Eddy’s friends to his father—prance around naked, to reaffirm their manhood in the most biological sense. One night, Eddy’s drunk cousin Stéphane takes off his clothes and screams, “I’m a monster, you guys, a beast, I’ll kill anyone who touches me!” The desire to compensate is not subtle. After all, if these men were really so powerful and invulnerable, they wouldn’t be naked and screaming.
Young Eddy Belleguele is one of the few who fails to be a man’s man, but not for lack of trying. To his father’s consternation, everything from Eddy’s manner of speaking, to his gait, to his tastes are effeminate in the eyes of the townspeople. Throughout his childhood, this otherness—expressions of Eddy largely beyond his control—elicit violence and lead to internalized shame. “Faggot, fag, fairy, cocksucker, punk, pansy, sissy, wimp, girly boy, pussy, bitch, homo, fruit, poof, queer, or homosexual, gayboy” are the insults his classmates brandish against him. He’s routinely attacked in school, but he tries to divert the violence to one of the building’s factory-like, deserted corridors to avoid bystanders whose presence would serve only to augment his humiliation. These are his standards: He prefers to be beaten out of sight.
When the book was released in France in 2014, Louis attracted controversy by stating in interviews that everything in the novel, from the homophobia to the violence, was completely true. But getting stuck in the weeds debating the veracity of specific events detracts from a larger truth, which is that growing up gay in an environment in which machismo is the ultimate value makes queer people astute observers of how masculinity is enforced. Queer readers will relate to how Eddy navigates social booby traps erected by men needing to affirm their own masculinity. “Someone who does not feel himself to be a man will all the more wish to appear one, and someone who knows his own inner weakness is all the more ready to exhibit displays of strength,” Louis writes. The precision of this insight stems from Eddie’s familiarity with what’s been called “the queer art of failure”—he’s experienced the quest to conceal these kinds of shortcomings.
The way Louis writes of Eddy’s humiliation as a queer is especially intriguing because of how similar it is to the way Louis writes about the humiliation laid upon Hallencourt’s working poor. To contextualize being attacked and called “faggot,” Eddy says, “the schoolyard obeyed the same rules as the rest of the world: the big guys kept away from the little ones … [his] mother would say much the same thing when speaking about workers.” In both instances, there’s hurt, shame, and, more often than not, physical injury. One time, after getting beat up, Eddy says, “I thought that in the end I would get used to the pain. There is a way in which people do grow accustomed to pain, the way workers get used to back pain.” The poverty of Hallencourt is a reference point in explanations of Eddy Belleguele’s individual trials, vice versa: Louis’s sensitivity in describing how a gay teenager navigates the straight world lends itself to a specifically queer sensitivity in describing how working class people navigate a world in which wealth dominates.
The End of Eddy takes a fatalistic approach to the circumstances of Hallencourt’s workers. They’re inescapable. Reflecting on when his mother, in moments where finances were particularly desperate, would beg him to stay in school, Eddy explains,
She didn’t understand that her trajectory, what she would call her mistakes, fit in perfectly with a whole set of logical mechanisms that were practically laid down in advance and nonnegotiable. She didn’t realize that her family, her parents, her brothers and sisters, even her children, pretty much everyone in the village, had had the same problems, and what she called mistakes were, in fact, no more and no less than the perfect realization of the normal course of things.
The shame shared among Mrs. Belleguele and the rest of the people of Hallencourt stems from the fact that they see their lives as defined by mistakes of their own making, rather than by a society that has destined “pretty much everyone” to be humiliatingly powerless. Mrs. Belleguele is proud. Like her alcoholic husband, when forced to confront the torment of day-to-day life, she leans into knowing how to “have a good laugh” which, according to Eddy, “was a point of pride for her.” “I am what I am, ordinary,” she tells Eddy to which he reflects, “as if pride were not the first manifestation of pain.”
The people of Hallencourt have little control over the economic circumstances into which they’re born, but meanwhile, Eddy’s family blames their son for his failures to conform. They understand his way of being is “chosen,” as if “it were some personal aesthetic project [he] was pursuing to annoy them.” “Choice”—who has it, who doesn’t—is what’s at issue. Both poverty and queerness become questions of personal worthiness or failure, of who to blame and why. If anything, The End of Eddy complicates the lazy conventional wisdom that frames political debates as struggles between identity politics and economic issues; it reminds us that not only do poverty and queerness coexist in individual lives, but that the ways these positions are enforced and punished can look very similar.
But this cross-pollination is complicated, and the overlap, for Eddy, brings some contradiction. It’s difficult to identify with Hallencourt and be queer at the same time: So much of the hatred he experiences is wrapped up in the community’s machismo defensiveness against the indignity of being poor. “Being attracted to boys transformed my whole relationship to the world, encouraging me to identify with values that were different from my family’s,” Eddy explains. His sexuality gave him an outsiders’ perspective at a young age. Eddy’s feminine tendencies are seen as “fancy” elitism, and years of ostracism lead Eddy to look at Hallencourt from a position he describes as that of an “arrogant class renegade.” Eddy considers himself from but not of the white working class. This is what sets The End of Eddy apart; the novel’s tone is both intimate and removed, even disdainful, toward its subjects.
Today, Édouard Louis still treads the line, being from but not of. He has chameleon capabilities, which have brought him credibility and repute among elites in cities like Paris and New York who long for interlocutors to explain desires of the increasingly foreign working class. His upbringing in Hallencourt mark his perspective as unimpeachably authentic, and the years of education in the corridors of France’s elite institutions makes him legible to the elite. He is seen as more than a novelist: He is also a translator, able to convert populist anger into digestible insights.
May 4, days before the final round of France’s elections, Louis wrote about the far-right psyche in a New York Times op-ed, “Why My Father Votes for Le Pen” Unlike The End of Eddy, the piece was formatted as a political explainer, meant to direct readers toward clear conclusions. Racism and xenophobia, he wrote, are seductive because they offer one of the only opportunities available to working-class people looking to be acknowledged by the political establishment. The article framed Louis alongside JD Vance, whose rust belt memoir, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisischronicles his upbringing in a benighted part of Ohio. Their work suggests there’s a market for these kind of native informants, capable of explaining the white working class to elite readers who have been sent reeling by recent political developments. The need to further understand and sympathize across geographic and cultural boundaries is real and urgent, but the works of Louis and Vance alike risk further exoticizing these poor communities, rendering them not people to be understood but riddles to be decoded.
For its part, The End of Eddy’s takeaways are inconclusive. At the end of the novel, Eddy has a chance opportunity to leave Hallencourt to attend a specialized high school in Amiens. At first, things go swimmingly. Away from Hallencourt’s working class masculinity, nearly everything about the boys he encounters is different. They speak differently, they dress differently, so much so that Eddy reflects, “They would have all been called fags at my middle school.” Near the book’s end, it seems that these kind of alternative norms give Eddy the space to fit in and act more naturally without worrying about the threat of violence. But, this turns out to ultimately be false. Amiens is more of the same.
We are gathered in the hallway, in front of the door to Room 117, waiting for the teacher, Mrs. Cotinet.
Someone walks up,
He calls out to me
Hey Eddy, as gay as ever?
I laugh along with them.
Much like he learned to do in Hallencourt, Eddy laughs to lessen the humiliation brought on by these kinds of attacks. It turns out that homophobia isn’t only a working class disease. No place is safe from cruelty.