THE END OF EDDY
By Édouard Louis
192 pages. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $23.

It took a few dozen pages to see it, but once I did, it was very hard to unsee: Édouard Louis’s “The End of Eddy” is the “Hillbilly Elegy” of France.

Both Louis’s deeply autobiographical novel and J. D. Vance’s memoir are stories by precocious young men about the savagery of their childhoods. Both explore cultures of spectacular violence. Both are set in decaying manufacturing towns — places where the men and women scuff and strain against economic morbidity, class invisibility and narcotizing boredom. Yet these same men and women have a paradoxical relationship with the government, at once resenting its power and depending on its largess. Welfare is as common as rain.

Both books became unexpected cultural phenomena. “The End of Eddy” sold 300,000 copies in its first year after publication in 2014, when Louis was 21; “Hillbilly Elegy” has been on The New York Times’s best-seller list for more than 40 weeks. And both authors, after escaping their hometowns against insuperable odds (“You don’t even understand that flight is an option,” Louis writes), have been recruited to interpret nativist movements in their countries. Louis has spent the last three years explaining the allure of Marine Le Pen — just recently in this publication — while Vance spent the run-up to the 2016 election assaying the appeal of Donald J. Trump.

In July 2016, Vance had a conversation about Trump with the journalist Rod Dreher that was so popular it crippled the website of The American Conservative. Three weeks later, Dreher published a letter from a reader in France, telling him about “an amazing book on the same subject” but in French: “En Finir avec Eddy Bellegueule.”

This analogy has its limits, obviously. “The End of Eddy” is also a gay coming-of-age story; “Hillbilly Elegy” is not. Nor is the context for these two books the same: France is a social democracy, extending to its citizens benefits Americans would find unimaginable; the United States remains, as ever, enthusiastically capitalist, with an instinctive distaste for big government.

But the parallels are unmistakable. Even many of the smaller details in the two books rhyme, no doubt because the distinguishing features of poverty do not vary all that much from place to place. The bad diets. (Vance was chubby as a kid; most of Louis’s male relations are obese.) The poor dental hygiene. (Vance writes about “Mountain Dew mouth”; Louis never brushed his teeth.) The televisions that are always blaring, the women who are always smoking, the problem parent who is always drinking.

“The End of Eddy” is a novel in name only. The author has said in interviews that “every word of this book is true,” a claim even few memoirists dare to make. For anyone interested in learning about the white underclass that’s helped power the populist movements of Europe, it is an excellent and accessible place to begin.

Louis is unsparing about the ugliest sides of this movement — boorishness, xenophobia — which his parents wear like a badge. (A typical aside from his father: “Damn towelheads, that’s all you see on the news, dirty Arabs.”) But he also understands the existential origins of his parents’ anger — how their foreshortened economic horizons and absence from French culture have shrunk their hopes and prospects to the size of a lemon. Louis grew up in a house without a phone, without doors, without lights in the bedrooms. He was frequently dispatched to the store to buy food on credit, on the theory that no one would say no to a child.

His mother could blame herself all she wanted — for her pregnancy at 17, her marriage to a brawling lout on permanent disability, her low-paying job and life of dispiriting sameness. But in Louis’s estimation, she had only the illusion of agency to change her fate. “She didn’t understand,” Louis writes, “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.”

“The End of Eddy,” however, is not just a remarkable ethnography. It is also a mesmerizing story about difference and adolescence, one that is far more realistic than most.

From the time Eddy, the narrator, is very young, he realizes he is gay. So, we assume, do his parents, though this possibility lurks only in the back alleys of their minds, unarticulated or obliquely expressed (his father, a flamboyant homophobe, calls him the name of a gay reality-TV character). So do the other children. “Pansy, sissy, wimp, girly boy, pussy, bitch, homo, fruit, poof, queer,” reads a partial, and printable, scourge of epithets he endures at school.

In a work of traditional fiction, the narrator would perhaps celebrate his outsider status and become a defiant rebel. Not here. Trying to blend in, for better or worse, is what most bullied kids do. How many truly have the courage to lead a life apart? Eddy spends most of his time trying to erase his differences. He dates girls. He calls another effeminate boy “faggot.”

Violence is a way of life in the town. The walls in Eddy’s house are pitted with holes made by his father’s fist; whenever the family cat had a litter, his father would stuff the kittens in a plastic bag and swing them against the nearest concrete surface.

But being gay makes Eddy a target for especially imaginative forms of aggression, some of them so disgusting that simply reading about them feels like being physically assaulted. There are at least two instances of Eddy’s being forced to taste his bullies’ spit. That his last name is “Bellegueule,” or “pretty face,” doesn’t help. (The author changed it to Louis as he was writing this book.)

Yet the reader must wonder whether being gay was ultimately Eddy’s salvation. “Being attracted to boys transformed my whole relationship to the world,” Louis writes, “encouraging me to identify with values that were different from my family’s.” Had he been straight, would he have had the imagination and urgent desire to leave the village of his birth? We’ll never know. But it’s to our benefit, as well as his, that he did.