Gay literature is filled with tales of disapproving fathers and their emotionally damaged offspring. The dysfunctional father-son dynamic appears in Larry Kramer’s Faggots, Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City and more recently in Paul McVeigh’s The Good Son.
It’s also a key theme of Who Killed My Father by Édouard Louis. The French author first found fame with The End of Eddy – a novel that offers a fictionalized account of his troubled relationship with his father. In his latest book, he tries to make peace with the man who raised him, not through fiction but with a companion piece which is half memoir, half essay.
Who Killed My Father is addressed to Louis’s father – who is the kind of man Louis himself never could be: a tough, working-class guy who failed to escape his modest background and became a father – to Louis and two other children from a previous marriage. It opens with a series of stage directions (indeed, it has been made into a play). Two men stand apart in an empty space. Snow falls, slowly burying them both. Only the son speaks. The father doesn’t say a word.
What follows is the most profoundly moving memoir I’ve read in years. The author visits his father after a period of months and is so shocked at his physical deterioration, he barely recognizes him. Compassion prompts a journey of discovery. As a child, Louis longed for his father’s absence. Now he feels an urgent need to get to know him. His mother recalls how his father loved to dance. ‘Hearing that your body had done something so free, so beautiful, and so at odds with your obsession with masculinity, it dawned on me that you might once have been a different person.’ Later, Louis finds a family photo album and discovers that this homophobic man who sneered at any sign of effeminacy once dragged up as a cheerleader.
Then there were the darker times – the brooding silences, the heavy drinking, the angry outbursts. Himself the son of a violent alcoholic, Louis’s father swore he’d never hit his own children. Instead he throws wine glasses and words that wound. One day Louis seeks revenge by orchestrating a fight between his father and his physically stronger brother.
Yet despite telling people he hates his father, Louis admits, ‘it often seems to me that I love you’. Seeing his father cry, he realizes ‘you were as much a victim of the violence you inflicted as of the violence you endured’.
Finally, the author describes with righteous anger the factors leading to his father’s demise – the factory job that mangled his body, the digestive problems resulting from months recuperating on his back, the poor diet and medications no longer paid for by the government. ‘You’re barely fifty years old. You belong to the category of humans whom politics has doomed to an early death.’
As the book ends, words are exchanged and father and son reach an understanding. In finally learning to forgive his father, Louis sets himself free. And the reader is moved beyond words.
Reviewed by Paul Burston
WHO KILLED MY FATHER
Written by Édouard Louis
Translated from the French by Lorin Stein
Published by Harvill Secker (2019)
Read The Queer Riveter in its entirety here.
Paul Burston is the author of six novels including the WH Smith bestseller The Black Path and his latest, The Closer I Get. His journalism has appeared in the Guardian, The Times, Time Out and many other publications. He is the curator and host of award-winning literary salon Polari, and founder of the Polari Book Prizes. For information about Polari and The Polari Prize see www.polarisalon.com.