A Gypsy boy becomes a man
BookPage Nonfiction Top Pick, February 2012
“Somehow, this time, I would make it work.” That’s the quiet plea of 12-year-old Mikey Walsh, desperate to fit in with his Romany Gypsy family. Such is the power of Walsh’s fantastic memoir, Gypsy Boy, that your heart breaks for his empty hope. Being an outsider is bad enough, but Walsh (a pseudonym) reveals the special hell that is being a pariah in a band of outsiders—and the courage required to start anew.
Walsh’s destiny is sealed as soon as he is born. Like his father, Frank, the boy is meant to become a bare-knuckle boxer, continuing a grand family tradition of clueless pugilists. But it never happens; Mikey never responds to Frank’s abusive boxing lessons, which begin at age four and segue into a bloody blur of nonstop torture. Then Mikey, vulnerable and ignored by his family, becomes the target of his Uncle Joseph’s deviant sexual urges, and can do nothing to stop the much larger man.
In the testosterone-driven Gypsy world, Mikey is an outlier and he’s gay—which is literally life-threatening. If his father ever thought Mikey’s homosexuality was real, “rather than just the worst insult he could think of, he would go ballistic and would, almost certainly, kill me.” Walsh must flee, though he has no idea how; formal education and marrying for love remain mystifying, disdainful concepts in this dangerous environment governed by backward traditions.
Yet it’s the only world he knows, and flowers do bloom there: his salty mom, adventures with his sister, the occasional promising glimpse of friendship. It’s a testament to Walsh’s skill that he portrays his hopelessness so eloquently, without wallowing in sordid self-pity. His understated, lyrical sentences carry the book. You remember the little touches as well as the giant horrors: a magical, midnight car ride to London that serves as Walsh’s youthful salvation, the small gift from a friendly teacher that represents a nearly incomprehensible generosity. “We were all old before our time,” Walsh writes. “That’s the way we lived.”
The last portion of Walsh’s riveting book shows him breaking away from the Gypsy culture. It exacted a heavy price. But as an arts teacher living in London who recently married his partner, Walsh has finally made it work.