- - Friday, March 9, 2012

By Mikey Walsh
St. Martin’s / Thomas Dunne Books, $24.99 278 pages

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.

Here’s his description of a favorite aunt:

“While we didn’t care for Aunt Nancy at all, we loved our mother’s older sister, Aunt Minnie: a chain-smoking kleptomaniac who came over twice a week to take our mother, Frankie [his sister], and me to the nearest decent shopping center … Back at the car park, Aunt Minnie took off the fur and hurled it onto the boot. With a cigarette hanging from her lips, she would squirm around in the driver’s seat, peeling off her layers, which usually included around six tops, three pairs of slacks and an evening gown … [then] stay around long enough for a couple of coffees before carting her goods back to camp to sell for the best price. Since it was 100 percent profit, she was able to sell for knock-down prices, and there was always a queue for her wares.”

Mikey’s schooling, such as it was, took place in a segregated setting, with all the Gypsies lumped together, but he only attended for a few years - and as a result was functionally illiterate as a teenager and a young man - before his father pulled him out of school to help with family con-job business, bilking retirees into paying top dollar for “new” driveways covered with asphalt that washes away with the first rain.

There are quite a few villains in this book, but Frank Walsh, the author’s father, takes the black-and-blue ribbon. Not only does he batter his son, but also his wife, who lives in fear of him, yet doesn’t flee, in part because, as we see, she has strong feelings for “her man.” Go figure.

If you’re interested in the past, present, or future of Gypsies, and many of us are, you will find a lot of information here, most of it tossed off as asides. Not surprisingly, the Gypsies, who are looked down upon, and worse, by many Westerners (remember last year’s headlines from France?) have their own “inferior” group to hate, specifically, the Irish Travellers, of whom Mr. Walsh provides a fair account, and their “inferior” customs, ways and behavior. He maintains, strange as this might sound, that they give Gypsies a bad name.

Somehow, with a true grit that almost belies belief, Mikey Walsh kept trying to get away and to make something of himself, not to mention deal with his sexuality. In his telling of the tale, he becomes a very sympathetic character. The book’s final impression is its author’s love for his family, and theirs for him (despite the way his father treated him all his life). Their way of life may be very different, but their positive feelings for one another are universal.

Read this book, and you’ll never look at, or think of, a Gypsy in the same way.

• John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.

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