Book review: Gypsy Boy by Mikey Walsh - A Hidden Boylover Hero Bestseller in the UK
Posted 20 April 2012 - 01:10 PM
Ordinarily, the word ‘abuse’ wouldn’t be a grabber for me these days. I’ve read hundreds of autobiographies of all forms of abuse, physical, sexual and psychological. I think that even though every person’s own story is poignant and valuable, I’ve pretty much worked my way through abuse as a literary theme. It’s a sad moment when nothing about the mistreatment of children by their parents, relatives, clergy, and so on surprises you, but thanks to the disclosures of the last three decades, we’ve surely reached that moment.
This, however, is not just a story of abuse. To begin with, it’s witty, observant and loving in a way that immediately suggests that the author is gay. No offense to heterosexual writers, but when you have an author who can describe the curtains his aunt put up when he was four years old, and make those curtains sound hilarious yet dramatically wonderful, you probably have a gay author. So we know Mikey (a pseudonym) is a gay boy long before he ever tells us.
Much of this book’s charm lies in things that fascinate the young gay Mikey – the women in his life, other crazy relatives, the color of the Romany lifestyle and culture.
The other strongly positive feature of this story is that it has a heroic boylover in it. He’s never called a boylover, and even the concept is never implied. But there he is. I’ll come back to him in a moment.
Mikey’s gay nature sets him up for physical abuse from day one. Gypsy boys are expected to fight, he explains, to duel each other in bare-knuckle boxing, and Mikey’s dad is an unofficial but nationally known champion. Dad hangs a chain with golden boxing gloves on it around Mikey’s neck the day he’s born, and he begins to train him as a fighter shortly after he learns to talk. But Mikey just isn’t a fighter; he falls down, he cries. For the shamefulness of his response, he gets beating after beating. He’s a grave disappointment to his dad. He gets so many severe beatings he calls his bedroom ‘the beating room.’ His dad also disapproves of the games he plays with his sister, and he gets more beatings for that. After an especially bad moment of terror with his dad at age six, he lapses into four or more years of nightly bedwetting and gets a public high-pressure hosedown for that every morning in the trailer camp, usually followed by another beating. Anyone who stands in the way of this treatment also gets a beating. The authorities discover his existence and he’s obliged to attend school for a short time, but no help comes from that quarter. He is withdrawn by his father after the teacher sends home a permission note for a sex education course.
Mikey, however, gets an unwanted sex education of his own starting from age six when he’s sent off to work from time to time with his uncle Joseph. Joseph recognizes that the boy is not a fighter and puts two and two together – he starts using Mikey as a sex doll from then on. Mikey’s attempt to tell his dad results, of course, in another severe beating. So he’s trapped. So very trapped. Even at age 10, we still see him getting his daily beating from dad for bedwetting, and his periodic exotic bruises and mouthful of stuff from the drearily lusty Joseph.
The first man Mikey falls in love with is a 26-year-old non-gypsy employee, called a ‘dossa.’ By the time Mikey is 12, he’s gone through puberty and his secret affections for Kenny the dossa have gone well beyond friendship, if only in his own mind. Eventually, in a dramatic moment where he saves a drunken Kenny from blowing himself sky-high with bottled gas, Mikey declares his love for the man. But Kenny is straight and can’t reciprocate the affection – he gives up on suicide, but ignores Mikey from then on.
It’s not until Mikey is a worldly-wise, smoking, swearing, drinking, driving and, at last, non-bedwetting 13-year-old that he meets Caleb, a 25-year-old bartender at a local bar. By this time Mikey is acutely aware that he’s gay, and he’s convinced that his father’s ever more violent beatings will become a murder when his orientation is discovered. He tells Caleb he’s 19, but Caleb soon sees through that. Still, they eventually admit they love each other. We’re not told whether this led to sex – in today’s Britain, that would surely lead to the pseudonymized Caleb being tracked down and incarcerated – but when Caleb is forced to prove his love by helping Mikey escape his now homicidal father, he comes through in a big way. He helps Mikey spirit himself away into a non-Gypsy world he knows nothing about, and for his trouble, he endures beating after beating from relatives who are determined to track the missing boy down through threats and torture. Eventually Caleb distances himself from Mikey for the sake of survival, but he never yields the information of where Mikey is hiding, no matter how much punishment he goes through. So Mikey survives, gets a job, educates himself, gets a better job – and in the end of the book, we see him getting ready for his same-sex marriage to a man called Dillan.
As he drives toward his wedding, Mikey reflects, “I think of Caleb. I will always love him. I wonder where he is now, what he is doing, and whether he would be happy for me. I hope he is happy.”
Mikey clearly thinks Caleb is just a gay guy, even though Caleb confessed love for an abused 13-year-old and risked his own life to help the boy run away from a home where he was, in effect, on death row.
The irony is that, since the book is a runaway bestseller, we can see that the public has bought the idea that Caleb was just a good-hearted gay guy. Somehow, in his writing, Mikey Walsh has skirted controversy by triggering the ‘gay guy’ meme rather than the ‘pedophile’ meme in the way he renders Caleb. That, apparently, has been enough to end any significant discussion of Caleb being a boylover. And perhaps Caleb isn’t one, in any dedicated way, but he certainly became one at a critical moment. In any other context, he would surely be represented as the dirty, foul predator, grotesquely luring the innocent lad from his somewhat problematic family. The stock-issue ‘pedophile’ of the Gypsy Boy story is the cretinous uncle Joseph, raping the six-year-old Mikey and imagining the six-year-old loves it. Caleb, the hero, could never be described by that word, or his heroism would conceptually evaporate. So the book may even gratify those who like to see a pedophile villain get his comeuppance (and Joseph does get his comeuppance, eventually).
But let’s face it, in today’s Britain (and US, and Australia, and Canada), Caleb would be called a pedophile just as easily as Joseph would.
So, with Gypsy Boy, Mikey Walsh has offered the world an amazing gift. He’s represented the heroism and the love of the boylover – or, in newspaper lingo, the paedo – who saved him, and he’s done it in a way that convinces everybody the fellow is really a champ.
Now the public just needs to be reminded that ordinarily, when they are dealing with people like Caleb, they would nearly all act like Mikey’s dad.
Posted 20 April 2012 - 11:12 PM
A 'dosser', by the way, is a tramp, a vagrant person who usually sleeps in a doss-house (a cheap lodging house) or a barn, and may accept unskilled work here and there as needed. Gypsies are known to exploit them whenever they can; after all, a dosser is just a gadjo, a lesser being.
Posted 21 April 2012 - 11:25 PM
It depends. Some books fill me with sadness, even when I know they are fiction. Have you ever read Bernard MacLaverty's Lamb? It's heartbreaking. (They made a film of it; see here <www.youtube.com/watch?v=ld46ULC572g>).
Posted 24 April 2012 - 12:54 AM
They travel to London and live for a time in various bed-and-breakfast places, sightseeing and enjoying each other's company, until they find out through the press that Michael (Brother Sebastian) is being suspected of having kidnapped Owen. Michael's money is also running out and he can't find a job, because there would be no one to take care of Owen. To make things worse, Michael begins to understand that he is unable to control Owen's impulses and keep him on the straight path. He will fail as a surrogate father, just like he failed as a Brother in religion.
They return to Ireland, rent a car and travel through County Donegal, enjoying their last holidays together. Michael feels powerless to protect and care for the boy he loves. If Owen returns to the home, he will have a brutal and miserable life and will eventually be sent to an outside world which has no place for him. He then makes a tragic decision. Because he loves Owen more than anyone else in the world, he will not let him suffer. They will die together.
One morning, Michael throws away the tablets Owen took to prevent epileptic fits and replaces them with aspirins. They leave in the car and drive to a beach. Owen is playing in the sand when he has a seizure. Michael then carries him to the edge of the water and drowns him there. He leaves him on the sand and walks into the sea, with the intention of drowning himself, but the water was too shallow and he could not drown. He failed again.
The book ends here. The reader will obviously provide a suitable ending.
It is not a literary masterpiece. It is a good novel. But it is too realistic for me. And too sad.
Posted 06 June 2012 - 11:33 PM
I actually was accepted by his parents and extended family, which was no mean feat. He actually taught me a few Romani sentences, and the Lord's Prayer in the Vlach dialect of Romani, and that also helped.
We are thousands of miles apart now, but we remain in touch as best we can.
And yes, I miss him.
Posted 10 June 2012 - 12:46 AM
For example, numbers 1 to 10 are ek, dui, trin, shtar, panch, shov, eftá, októ, enyá, desh in Vlach. In other dialects, 1 is yek or yekh, 5 is panj, and so on. Incidentally, ek comes from an Indo-Iranian word; dui, trin and desh from Indo-Iranian via Latin; shtar and shov from Afghani; panch from Sanskrit; and eftá, októ and enyá from Greek. Gypsy tribes used to travel quite a lot in those days.
OK, enough showing-off for tonight. Everyone should know by now I'm a misunderstood genius. :P/>
Posted 12 June 2012 - 01:15 AM
Having lived through the 'Groovy' generation, all I can say is youngster linguistics are rather arcane.
Pashtun it is. Mostly anyway. 'Via Latin' means influenced by the Eastern Roman Empire, would you believe it? Gypsies travelled to Southern Europe through the Middle East, Anatolia and Greece, picking up new words here and there.
Good heavens, I'm so brilliant it frightens me! :D/>