I've just reread Visions of Gerard, the only novel by Jack Kerouac that I have ever read. I read it the first time only because it happened to be on a bookshelf in a bedroom in Burlington, Vermont, on a cold, wet day in early spring, 1973.
It's about the short life of Kerouac's saintly older brother, who died of heart disease at the age of nine. It is set in Lowell, Massachusetts, a New England mill town, among the French Canadian population, working class and Catholic.
Not so different from 1973 Burlington. A friend from high school had invited me to go with him there, to "God's Country", from which his parents had retired to Winter Park. They were also Catholic. His father was of French Canadian descent, had been a hair dresser in Burlington. His mother was of Polish descent.
We stayed with the family of his childhood friend. I had never seen a place like Burlington before: an old New England town with stone buildings, a town square, a World War I memorial and an ancient cemetery. I was a child of rootless sunbelt subdivisions, bedroom communities.
We crossed the river, where the silent red brick textile mills sat forlorn by the falls, into the town of Winooski to visit family. His cousin was an authentic greaser, like the Fonz, with pomaded hair, leather jacket, and motorcycle. I had never seen a real greaser, and I haven't seen one since. An endangered species, to check off one's life list.
Our host family was also of French Canadian descent, and very Catholic. So Catholic, in fact, that they didn't even have to go to church. A priest and friend of the family said a homely Mass around the dining room table. I watched them, a wild boy from the pagan future that was Modern America. I wanted to warm myself at that fire.
It was March: chill, sodden, and misty from the thaw. I don't remember why I was alone in that upstairs bedroom for an afternoon. And my eye fell upon Visions of Gerard. It was so easy, in that old house, to picture this tale of 1920's Lowell, Massachusetts; this sweet, sad memory of tragedy visited upon a family bound together by love, faith, and community.
Maybe it was God's Country. When I returned to the Southland, I carried with me a little black and silver crucifix.
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