“We are always playing roles and there is a certain truth to masks”: an absorbing but sobering roman à clef by philosopher/novelist Louis and a sharply pointed coming-of-age tale.
Kenneth Rexroth, the American poet, published a memoir that bore the title An Autobiographical Novel, he said, at the insistence of the lawyers. No one save for Louis, born Eddy Bellegueule in 1992, can say for sure where novel begins and memoir ends here; the book reads like autobiography unadorned except for occasional dark-lyrical moments, as with the anti-Proustian opening sentence: “From my childhood I have no happy memories.” It’s abundantly evident, just a few pages in, why Louis should make such a declaration, for though he lives in la belle France, it’s in the nearly Appalachian countryside of Picardy, where a gay kid such as himself is a playground victim from the get-go. His father, who—shudder—drinks box wine, box after box, is a raging brute descended from other raging brutes, wants nothing more than to toughen up a boy who won't be toughened. Mom is, like a sans-culotte, “torn between absolute submission to power and an enduring sense of revolt.” She smokes like a chimney, aware that it’s no good for her but seemingly unconcerned that her asthmatic son might be suffering. Eddy is smart and obliging, even though “being an obedient student at school was considered girlish,” and nobody out in the sticks can figure him out except to peg him as “Bellegueule, the homo.” Throughout, he grapples with that identity, determined to make himself manly, attempting to convince himself, “Maybe I’m not gay…maybe I’ve just always had a bourgeois body that was trapped in the world of my childhood.” And on the other side of that struggle, self-discovery awaits, patiently….
The best moments of this good though certainly dispiriting book are those in which we sense that better things await the protagonist in a world far beyond his window.