June 10, 2012 by LeVoyageur
Jack Kerouac did not really factor into my reading during my teen years, and when I was in college, I never felt pulled to his works. It wasn’t as though I was working so hard on my Latin that I couldn’t take the time to read anything else. For many years I just didn’t read much fiction at all. And Kerouac seemed like a project, if not a lifestyle.
It was after college, in my late 20’s, when I took up some of his works in my spare time and soon found myself reading through most of his oeuvre. I would not say I took up the lifestyle ascribed to him: I am not now, nor have I ever been a Beatnik. But I did become a fan and today I am still reading Kerouac, enjoying his multifaceted fiction and poetry.
Many people, I’d aver, have read one book by Kerouac: On the Road. If they have read a second, it is probably Dharma Bums or Big Sur. It’s understandable. On the Road is a seminal piece of American fiction and set the tone for a subculture that remains evocative and vivid in the popular imagination. And Dharma Bums and Big Sur are crushingly good works.
With its reputation as the book to read by Kerouac, I stubbornly and resolutely avoided On the Road. When I began to read his works, I started with The Town and the City, his “great American novel” which I rank as one of my favorites. Next, only next, I read On the Road. I can’t say that I loved it. I was confused more than anything. It did not appeal and I maintain that the popularity of this work overshadows many of his other, better, writing.
It was after On the Road that I found Visions of Gerard. At 130 pages, it is more a novella than a novel. In this small book, Kerouac charts the small life of his older brother Gerard who died age nine when Kerouac was just four years old. In a disarmingly childlike voice, Kerouac brings the reader into the world of his French Canadian family, into the world of childhood on the one hand, and the world of religion and sainthood on the other.
It is in my estimation Kerouac’s most ‘French-Canadian’ book, making liberal use of Quebec-French idioms and describing the scenes of his youth in a way that make Lowell, Massachusetts sound much like one might imagine small-town Quebec of the same era. The scene he sets is one of revelry and drunkenness, of hard-scrabble paysansspeaking their “semi-Iroquoian French-Canadian”, and what he calls a “close-knit truly French community (with the peculiar Medieval Gaulic closed-in flavor).” And throughout, there is black-clad piety, the image of the Church suffusing every corner of daily life.
It is this last characteristic, religion (or more appropriately, mysticism and piety), that is at the heart of Visions of Gerard. Much has been written of Kerouac’s engagement with Buddhism during his short life (he died at 47.) In fact one of his great works, published posthumously, is Wake Up: A Life of the Buddha. And Buddhism is very much in evidence in Visions of Gerard. But rather than being in opposition to Kerouac’s native Catholicism, it seems to serve as a sort of mirror faith; one might say a validation of his deeply held Catholic faith.
Oh, to be there that morning…the dearness of the oldfashion’d scene, the poor complaining nuns doing what they think is best, within the Church, all within her Folding Wing – Dove’s the church–I’ll never malign that church that gave Gerard a blessed baptism, nor the hand that waved over his grave and officially dedicated it – Dedicated it back to what it is, bright celestial snow not mud.
Here Kerouac encapsulates the theme of Visions just as he illuminates the place of man in the world: people suffer and work away to little gain. They live little unquestioning lives, because asking questions doesn’t make anything better anyway, but still they just hope that things will be a little better. It is left to those few saints around to bring us all closer to the divine.
In Kerouac’s vision of his lost brother, I am reminded of The Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of Saint Therese of Lisieux. Also known as The Little Flower of Jesus, Saint Therese was a French Carmelite nun in the late 19th century. Yearning to enter the religious life from an early age, her short life was one of devotion, simple faith, and suffering. Writing under the direction of her superiors, her Autobiography became widely known in the early 20th century after her death. Her “little way” was based on finding joy in her limitations rather than discouragement.
Like St. Therese, Gerard’s life is formed around simple faith. He is hidden away by suffering, which he in turn attempts to hide. His suffering is transformed into an eagerness to be closer to God even if his mortal weaknesses surface despite his best efforts. In his child’s view of love, kindness, sin, and reconciliation, we find a profound attachment to the ‘little way’ of faith.
More than just a not-quite coming-of-age story in honor of the lost brother, and more than a hagiography of someone not-quite-known, Visions demands of the reader to see the world through the eyes of a child, through innocent eyes. It uncovers the human in the raw and crude lives of average people; it allows the humane to surface from the mud of despair and sadness.
Returning to Visions of Gerard after 15 years or more, I found it to be weightier than I remembered. Kerouac’s story is an awesome metaphysical exploration, through the brief life of his brother and his earliest memories of life in the French-Canadian immigrant community of Lowell. It may not be for everyone, but for me, it is one of Kerouac’s best.