A lot of countries are haltingly, painfully coming to terms with the fact that they're not what they thought they were. The country of Jefferson and Johnson, of the Federalist Papers and the Marshall Plan, has made Donald Trump its leader. The British, long proud of being the cosmopolitan and economic centre of Europe, have just decided to kick out the Europeans and be the economic centre of nothing but themselves. And the French, with their Revolution and Napoleonic Code, the national incarnation of modern sophistication, are on the verge of making Marine Le Pen theirs, against a backdrop of racial violence and an increasingly general intolerance – of immigrants, of Muslims, even of other Europeans.
It's in this context that The End of Eddy, a just-translated first novel that came out in France in 2014, where it has sold 300,000 copies and was named to the short list for the Prix Goncourt first novel award, made such a muddy, messy splash, showing France a side of itself with which it's only beginning to come to terms.
It's an autobiographical story of brutality and violence, of small minds, foreshortened horizons and profound sexism and homophobia. And it's not set in the kind of past that lets readers find comfort in blaming their incomprehensible grandparents, such as stories of Vichy. This ugly story is set in the 2000s, its author, Édouard Louis, was born in 1992. This is a story of France today, the France outside the dozen or so Paris arrondissements that foreigners and French alike have been using metonymically for far too long, long enough to let Louis's characters vote Le Pen to the brink of the presidency. As the narrator says of his mother, describing a contradiction pundits in formerly liberal democracies around the world are still trying to wrap their heads around: "She was often angry. She'd take any occasion to voice her indignation, railing day in, day out, against the politicians, against new regulations reducing welfare payments, against the powers that be, which she hated from the deepest fibres of her being. And yet she would not hesitate to invoke those same powers she otherwise so hated when she felt ruthlessness was called for: ruthlessness in dealing with Arabs, with alcohol, with drugs, with any kind of sexual behaviour she didn't approve of. She would often remark that 'what we need is some law and order in this country.' "
Eddy Bellegueule – his last name the rough French equivalent of "hey, nice face" (and also the author's birth name) – is a skinny, unathletic, verbally conscientious but academically uninspired child of 10 when we meet him. Life in his northern town is rough. Obesity is respected among the underemployed men, their drunken brawling a point of pride among their wives, who see it as a sign of inscrutable but ultimately admirable masculinity. Girls grow up to work as cashiers in the shop, or to stay home to look after the kids; boys work in the factory or not at all. No one leaves. The nearby city of Amiens is too full of "blacks" and "ragheads," who'd cut you as soon as look at you, as everyone knows.
Every day at school, Eddy keeps an appointment in an out-of-the-way hall with two slightly older boys, one tall with red hair, the other shorter with a hunched back, who beat him, make him swallow their spit and call him pédale, pédé, tantouse, enculé, tarlouze, pédale douce, baltringue, tapette, tapette à mouches, fiotte, tafiole, tanche, folasse, grosse tante, tata, l'homosexuel, le gay – they have a lot of words for something they hate so much – between kicks. "What people think of," Eddy says, "faced with a scene such as this one, I mean: looking at it from the outside – is the humiliation, the inability to understand, the fear, but they don't think of the physical pain." He meets them there willingly, because he figures it's better they beat him up and call him names in a remote spot so others won't be so likely to join in. That someone might defend him doesn't occur to him, or anyone else.
There's a lot of different kinds of pain in The End of Eddy, but Louis doesn't dwell too much on the abstract. His France is a brutal France, and one that takes pleasure in its brutality. "I would see my father, after one of our cats had a litter, take the newborn kittens and slip them into a plastic grocery bag and swing it against some cement edge until the bag was filled with blood and the meowing had ceased. I had seen him butcher pigs in the yard, and drink the still-warm blood he was collecting in order to make blood sausage (blood on his lips, his chin, his T-shirt). 'It's the best, the blood you get from an animal right when it dies.' "
This is Zola without the sense of justice, Rabelais without the need for monsters, Genet without the ability to find anything beautiful about getting badly beaten up. It's the ground-level story of a new subversive force in the West, born of an abandoned working class, that's fuelling a whole new kind of revolution.
Bert Archer writes about books and travel in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @BertArcher.