More than 30 earnest readers of Jack Kerouac books gathered tonight upstairs at The Old Court Irish pub at Middle and Central streets to listen to a reading of excerpts (start to end) of Kerouac’s novel “Visions of Gerard.” The story is a bleak and sweetly candid remembrance of his older brother Gerard, who died of a childhood disease at nine years old when the family was living on Beaulieu Street in Centralville (Kerouac was a few years younger).
The meeting was the final session of a book discussion series about Kerouac’s Lowell writings organized by Sara Marks of the UMass Lowell Libraries with English Dept. professor Todd Tietchen in the lead. Tonight’s event was a collaboration with the city’s anchor Kerouac organization, Lowell Celebrates Kerouac! Mainstays of LCK! made up much of the line-up, including Mike Wurm, Roger Brunelle, Nancy “Nomi” Herbstman, Bill Walsh, and Steve Edington. Funding for the series was provided by Mass. Humanities Foundation and UMass Lowell’s English Dept. and Center for Arts and Ideas. English Dept. Chair Tony Szczesiul and his sister who lives in Lowell (and whose name I failed to write down—she is a nurse and studying creative writing at the University) also read selections from the book. John Sampas of the Kerouac Estate was in attendance, too.
The Lowell community really shines now in its recognition of Jack Kerouac. Just about a week ago, at the East Pawtucketville Neighborhood Group’s Franco-American Festival, the UMass Lowell Downtown Bookstore set up a table display of Kerouac’s writings and Roger Brunelle, inventor of the guided tour to Kerouac’s Lowell places, was on hand to talk about the author’s connections to the neighborhood. A few booths away, near the Franco American Day Committee booth, longtime cultural activist and teacher Roger Lacerte had a table full of French-language books from La Librairie Populaire, his store in Manchester, N.H., including French translations of several Kerouac novels. One can only imagine if the author ever pictured that his books would show up at a local fair in his old stomping grounds 44 years after his passing. The festival occupied the small municipal parking lot at University and Gershom avenues, in the shadow of the apartment block that is the setting for Kerouac’s teenage romance novel “Maggie Cassidy” and smack in the middle of the web of streets that are illustrated as a simple geographical grid in “Doctor Sax,” the story in which the legendary 1936 flood devastates the Lowell of young Jack Duluoz. The brilliant mix of fact and fiction gives Kerouac’s Lowell novels a timeless appeal and infuses the city map with a creative glow—these are special places because of the way they live in literature. Tonight, the setting was Centralville and St. Louis de France parish in the 1920s, when the French-Canadian enclave in that sub-neighborhood was peaking. Kudos to everyone who organized these events and participated.