Born into a violent Gypsy family, Mikey Walsh was trained to fight from the age of 4. But his real battle began once he put down his hands.
Minutes after his birth -- celebrated in family lore as the arrival of the "biggest, ugliest, fattest baby" anyone had ever seen -- Mikey Walsh came into his patrimony. His father wrapped around the infant's neck a gold chain adorned with a tiny pair of gold boxing gloves.
"In each country," writes Walsh in "Gypsy Boy," his affecting memoir of growing up among the Romany in England during the 1980s, "there is one man that wears the crown in the sport most favoured by Gypsy culture: bare-knuckle fighting." Frank, Mikey's father, ranked as the English champion. He expected nothing less from his son.
The boxing gloves also served to remind young Mikey that "all Gypsy men will have to fight as part of their day-to-day life. It would be impossible for any Gypsy man, no matter how much he might wish for a quiet life, to be in the company of other Gypsy men without being asked to put his hands up."
At the age of 4, Mikey begins training. Lesson No. 1: How to take a punch. "Every single day. Punches, followed by harder punches, fury and humiliation." For the next eight years, the "grooming process" continues. Frank forces Mikey to slug it out with boys many years his senior. Each Sunday, he battles his older sister. He loses every fight, and his father responds with even fiercer blows -- followed "by at least thirty minutes" of "raving about how ashamed of me he was, how I was a pathetic coward and he didn't know how he'd ever make a man of me."
Yet Mikey somehow rises above the family tradition. He has no aptitude for violence and shrugs off all possibility of growing into the "wolf" desired by his father. By the time he reaches adolescence, Mikey also recognizes that he is gay, and he must flee home or risk death.
Looking back on his upbringing, Mikey curiously insists on his deep love for his family and his pride in the Romany culture. Yet given the range and persistence of brutalities spilled over nearly 300 pages, the author seems to be elevating forgiveness to the level of sainthood as he absolves the mother who failed to shield him from his father's rage and his uncle's sexual predations.
And what aspects of Gypsy life are readers meant to regard with admiration? Surely, not the petty grifting that substitutes for work. Certainly not the shared loathing of outsiders, the battering and dismissal of women and girls. To his own ordeal and survival, Mikey Walsh issues a persuasive testimony. But to grasp the broader contours and subtleties of life within the Romany's fraying culture, readers will need to turn elsewhere.
Fred Setterberg is the author of "Lunch Bucket Paradise: A True-Life Novel," published by Heyday.