Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Gay Interest: New Memoir

Gypsy Boy on the Run, by Mikey Walsh

Mikey Walsh’s first book, Gypsy Boy, was a surprise best seller a few years ago in the United Kingdom, and became a popular book when it was published here in the United States. We reviewed it in this blog. Gypsy Boy on the Run is the “sequel” to that first memoir. Writing a sequel that doesn’t disappoint readers of a popular book is always a challenge, and while Gypsy Boy on the Run is perhaps a less sensational story than the first book, it is in many ways a better book, the story of a more experienced and thoughtful young man who is trying to make a life for himself with a past that is both burdensome and in ways self-defining and sustaining. Walsh’s devoted readers were, perhaps, owed the rest of the story, and Walsh makes it clear in his sequel that his transition from Gypsy culture to his life as a gay man in the world outside has not been a fairy tale story, as much as we might have been disposed to thinking it would be by the almost Grimm-like cultural ambience of his childhood. His “escape” has not been a happily-ever-after story, but it is the self-doubt and struggle he confronts in this sequel that help make his story one that is meaningful and inspiring to others.

Certainly one of the major attractions of Gypsy Boy was that we were introduced to the workings of a recondite culture, that we learned things we never knew about the traditions of Romany Gypsy society as we also learned about the world Walsh felt compelled to escape. The sequel includes some reminiscences that take us back to that world (the author seems to realize the interest those stories held for his readers), but the sustaining interest in this new book are not the cultural vignettes but rather the psychological legacy of how that life played out in Walsh’s transition to another life. The remarkable violence of his life remains a continuing theme, as we learn here of what seems to be a “contract” put out on his life by his abusive father, a reward he offers for anyone who can track down his son. And that violence spills over as a sort of contagion that impacts the first significant romantic relationship Walsh has in his new life. But the violent and uncertain nature of his existence, as real as it is, we realize is only a stand-in for the devastating and violent estrangement he has been forced to make with his culture and family. The underlying tension of Gypsy Boy on the Run seems to be the reconciliation and reconnection that Walsh feels the need to make with his family and his former life, and how coming to some peace with that past seems to be necessary if he is to be able to enter into sustainable relationships in his new life. What will be moving to readers here, in particular, is Walsh’s attempt to come to terms with the abuse and behavior of his father. The first shock after reading Gypsy Boy that readers will get is in what seems the utterly implausible dedication of the new book to his “dad.”

In addition to the physical abuse of his father, Gypsy Boy on the Run confronts more squarely Walsh’s childhood sexual abuse by his uncle, a subject that was divulged in Gypsy Boy. It is revisited in the concluding chapters of Gypsy Boy on the Run, where we get a sense that it has been a source of prolonged difficulty in his life. His reference to his own history of abuse by this relative, his concern about the danger his brothers are in from this same man, and his difficulties in dealing with the taboo nature of the subject in his Gypsy culture, is an engaging story in itself. Walsh’s accusations are initially not believed, and even when they are confirmed, he is treated in his culture as if he is at fault for having forced the truth to come out, and that his being gay somehow makes him the same as the adult child abuser. Gypsy culture in this regard is not so different from the misunderstandings and willed ignorance of popular culture. And yet what Walsh tells here with such discretion and reserve may be the most important part of his book for victims of childhood sexual abuse, especially young gay men who struggle with that legacy and wonder about its relationship to their own sexuality. A reader senses that Walsh may be on the threshold of exploring this issue in his life at greater length, and if that’s his next book, there are many readers who will follow him and will be grateful for his having done so.

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