‘Before I had a chance to rebel against the world of my childhood, that world rebelled against me. In truth, confronting my parents, my social class, its poverty, racism and brutality came second. From early on I provoked shame and even disgust from my family and others around me. The only option I had was to get away somehow. This book is an effort to understand all that.’
Louis’ novel is a simply told tale, describing the day-to-day humiliation and brutality of schoolboy Eddy’s life in a small working class town in the north of France and his escape from that world: an age-old tale, perhaps most reminiscent of the ‘kitchen sink’ dramas of the 1950s and 1960s. It is written in plain style which is almost deadpan at times, often touching in the way it picks out tiny details to set the violence into relief.
‘They waited for me there everyday. Evert day I came back, as if we had an appointment, an unspoken contract. I didn’t return in order to face up to them. It wasn’t courage or any kind of defiance which brought me to that hallway – a short one with peeling white paint and the smell of industrial cleaners like those used in hospitals or town halls.
There was just one idea I held to: here, no one would see us, no one would know. I had to avoid being hit elsewhere, in the playground, in front of the others, I had to keep other kids from thinking of me a someone who get beaten up.’
‘The End of Eddy’ is also a coming of age novel, a novel about coming to terms with sexuality and about how family, friends and community come to terms with it too. In Louis’s homeland of France, this novel caused a sensation, shock waves at the depiction of humiliation, violence, casual homophobia and racism. Perhaps surprising in the land of Jean Genet and even more surprising when, if you have grown up gay, there is nothing surprising in this book. Incident and backdrop may differ but the violence – both physical and verbal – will be well-known, wherever in society you were brought up. What is actually shocking is the shock itself…but then, perhaps, in a world which congratulates itself on its acceptance of all things queer, perhaps a reality check is in order?
Louis writes of the attacks on Eddy with a clear eyed scrutiny and sets them in context of a community in despair, desperate for self respect when the only means to do that is by expressing your dominance over others perceived to occupy a more lowly position than yourself. Indeed, Eddy finds himself doing just this when another effeminate boy arrives at the school and he finds himself striving to set a marker between them by joining in the homophobic taunts, setting himself alongside his tormentors: I may be queer but at least I’m your queer…
In recent years it has become the norm to view the working class as one of two homogenous groups: seen by the right as ‘chavs’ – less than animals, vermin who live a life of crime funded by the benefits system – or by the left, according to Lynsey Hanley, author of ‘Respectable: The Experience of Class’, as ‘People who look(ed) like (us) but who seemed to have an entirely different set of values that had been ignored or needed exposure’. In interviews, Louis has stated his intent in writing this novel was firmly in the latter, ‘to fight for them and with them because they seem to have disappeared from the public eye’. However, to avoid depicting ‘chavs’ Louis needed to craft a clear-eyed view of working class life and balance it carefully with Eddy’s story. As it stands the separate elements function perfectly, but I don’t feel that the balance is quite right. It is easy to see Eddy as a cuckoo in the nest: someone who, with their queerness and intelligence doesn’t really belong. But Eddy is working class too and this is too easily forgotten. I think we can assume that the majority of the readership will be at the very least lower middle class, educated, probably queer of some persuasion or drawn to the ‘outsider’ in society. They will be rooting for homosexual, sensitive, intelligent outsider Eddy, which inevitably sets into relief the warts and all picture which Louise paints of the working class community: at worst villainous, at best hopeless.
I suspect I am being too hard on Louis when this this dichotomy of being honest about the community which both nurtured you and tried to destroy you was always going to be a very fine balancing act – perhaps because I so wanted the novel to be perfect, especially when there is a fine talent at work: Louis has created persuasive working class characters and a nuanced, balanced picture of a community under pressure. His father may be a drunken bully who shares the violent homophobia and racism of his community, but as Louis’ mother tells it, at a village dance in the 1980s, an openly gay man would attend. Seeing youths abusing him with homophobic taunts, Louis’ father approached: ‘Leave him the fuck alone, you shitheads, you think you’re funny calling him names, so he’s a fag, why the fuck should you care? What’s it got to do with you? He told them to go home Enough of your bullshit. He came this close to beating them up himself my mother concluded.’
He writes with a forlorn sigh about his sister who wishes to be a Spanish teacher but rather than help her follow her dreams her teacher carelessly and casually destroys them by instigating an internship at a local bakery: She changes her mind about being a teacher and decides she want to be a sales assistant because it ‘would guarantee her a paycheque, which she wanted so she could afford all the things she’d been deprived of throughout childhood because our parents had no money.’
These people know and understand their position and want to escape: ”I don’t want you to have to kill yourself with work the way I do, I just messed round back then and now I’m sorry, got knocked up at seventeen. Then the only thing for me was to work my arse off, that’s all I’ve done and I’ve never amounted to anything. No travelling, nothing. I’ve spent my whole life doing housework, stuck at home, cleaning up my kid’s shit or else the shot if the old people I take care of. I screwed up my life.’
And ultimately, despite escape through education, Eddy finds the ties of his working class upbringing will always bind him: His mother and father save long and hard to buy him a new jacket for the lycee:
‘But as soon as I got to the lycee, I realised that it didn’t fit in with the people here, that no one here wore things like that: the boys wore men’s coats or else wool jackets, like hippies wore.
People found my jacket comical
Three days later, filled with shame, I threw it in the bin.
My mother will cry when I lie to her (I lost it).’
A while ago I talked about Nell Dunn’s ‘Up the Junction’ and complained that there were few novels which painted an accurate picture of modern working class life. Despite my reservations ‘The End of Eddy’ does that and shares Dunn’s beautiful, pared down prose. It is just so desperately sad that in the twenty first century we still need to tell this story.