Friday, March 18, 2016
Writes John Greenya/
You thought you had a hard life? For starters, Irish Gypsy Mikey Walsh, a lover and not a fighter, was born to Frank Walsh, the unofficial bare-knuckle boxing champ of all the Gypsies in the United Kingdom, a hard case who thought he could beat his pacifistic son into becoming his pugilistic successor. Almost from the day Mikey could stand up and (reluctantly) make a fist, Frank used him as a punching bag.
Despite no discernible improvement in the boy’s boxing skills (except for his ability to take a punch) after years of this treatment, Frank Walsh steadfastly maintained that his training method would eventually produce a champ. But while Frank was himself still decking all comers, Mikey was getting the stuffing beaten out of him by any and all challengers.
Next, and to complicate matters immensely, the boy was gay, the worst thing a young male can be in the mucho-macho Romany world. Finally, to complete the near-fatal trifecta, starting when Mikey had barely reached the age of reason, his perverted Uncle Larry molested him almost every day.
At 15, the author ran away to join a soul mate from the forbidden world of the Gorgias, the non-Gypsies, with whom all contact for males as well as females was strictly forbidden. But his father tracked them down, and after Mikey’s friend and lover was almost beaten to death, Mikey was back in camp. Eventually, he tried again to escape his mad, mad world, but I won’t spoil it for the reader by revealing the outcome.
This fascinating, if at times off-putting, book has several things going for it. One is the will-he/won’t-he-escape-the-Gypsy-life storyline, and another, as the subtitle promises and most definitely delivers, is an inside look at the Gypsy world through the eyes of a Gypsy. In addition, Mr. Walsh tells his story in a simple and affecting prose style that had to be self-taught.
If you think this view from the caravan will turn out to be a surprise, given the common belief that Gypsies are something less than nature’s noblemen, you’re in for a disappointment. Mr. Walsh trumps every stereotype. Think they have tacky taste, bad habits and a disdain for conventional morals and ethics? He cites chapter and verse to support those attitudes.
“Bigger. Fatter. Gypsier.” So read billboards in London recently, advertising new episodes of the popular reality series “Big Fat Gypsy Weddings.” If you’ve seen this show, you can see why it has rankled some of England’s nomads. Its female characters can make Snooki, from “Jersey Shore,” seem like an Oxford don.
Britain’s obsession with Gypsy culture has spread into bookstores. The Guardian reported last fall that four separate memoirs — by Gypsies, and by Irish travelers, who are sometimes called “white Gypsies” — were on paperback best-seller lists. There’s a sense of closed circles that are finally opening up. These coming-of-age memoirs take you places “Big Fat Gypsy Weddings” can’t, or won’t, go.
The buzziest of these books, and the first to arrive in the United States, is “Gypsy Boy,” by Mikey Walsh. (The name is a pseudonym.) It’s brash and frightening and funny — tonally, think of Frank McCourt meeting Axl Rose — without offering any real graininess or depth. The second half dissolves into daft romance-novel melodrama. But the thing is alive, and you grab your furtive literary pleasures where you can.
“Gypsy Boy” is largely about patriarchal trauma; it’s a trailer-park “Great Santini.” The author says he was born into Gypsy royalty, into a clan of champion bare-knuckle fighters. “My father was a pureblood, a great man,” the author writes, “a Black Knight of raging firepower.”
Where Mr. Walsh’s father went, brawls followed. Every sentient Gypsy male wanted to challenge his dominance. The author’s grandfather explained how to go about this brutal work: “One. Good. Hit. Put out your man like a candle.”
This bare-knuckle fighting world was chronicled recently in a documentary called “Knuckle,” and HBO has acquired the rights to make a series out of the film.
Mr. Walsh’s father wanted to turn his son into a fighter, too. He beat the author daily, teaching him how to take a punch. He beat his son more furiously when he began to discover that he was more of a lover than a fighter.
“I wasn’t the son he dreamed of,” Mr. Walsh says, “and he was never going to forgive me for that.”
The reader picks up on clues about Mr. Walsh’s sexuality long before his father does. He likes dresses, makeup, Barbra Streisand’s songs and “The Wizard of Oz.” When a macho relative brags about having met famous people, the author blurts, “Oh my God, have you met Madonna?”
This memoir can be grim. Some of the beatings are intense; teeth, mucus and blood fall to the floor. The author is raped repeatedly by a male relative. When he runs away from home at 15, and his father discovers he is gay, he puts a bounty on his head. Hence the pseudonym.
But “Gypsy Boy” is more buoyant than you might expect. The author is proud of his Gypsy heritage, and he is an unsentimental but affectionate observer of his people’s ways. He dispels myths about Gypsy life. His people are rarely poor, he writes. And he explains that there’s no such thing as a “Gypsy curse.” Gypsies merely pretend such a thing exists to frighten (or fleece) non-Gypsies.