Like a weird, mutated ogre muttering to himself by the roadside, Jack Kerouac’s Visions of Cody stands apart. As the author states in his short introduction, “I wanted a vertical metaphysical study of Cody’s character and its relationship to the general ‘America’.” He has done this and more, erecting teetering thousand-foot sculptures of brilliant scrap metal by the macadam highways and sundrenched fields of On the Road (Penguin Great Books of the 20th Century).
The descriptions of the prose sections of this strange, centaur book are among Kerouac’s most vivid. “A sad park of autumn, late Saturday afternoon — leaves by now so dry they make a general rattle all over and a little girl in a green knit cap is squashing leaves against the wire fence and then trying to climb over them — also mothers in the waning light, sitting their kiddies in swing seats of gray iron and pushing them with grave and dutiful playfulness.” In his afterword, Allen Ginsberg calls Kerouac, “the great rememberer,” and the truth of that is obvious as we dive into the oceanlike detail of this book: from the color of a car passed on the road ten years earlier to the expression on the face of a waitress in a bar during a sad, drunken night. He always grounds his characteristic, elegiac shouts in hard physical details, in the bony knuckles of a bum or the dusty lampchain in a poorly-lit diner.
The center of Visions of Cody is a long dialogue between Jack and Cody, apparently taken directly from a recording made by Kerouac. “JACK: Now I gotta tell you about Vicki though. CODY: Yeah you were. JACK: I mean I gotta tell you about Vicki. CODY: Tell me about her. JACK: I did tell you about her already.” The dialogue at first seems to be a simple set of conversations about sex, death, and writing. The reader might even question the point of its inclusion. But then, as we continue to the last section of the book, “Imitation of the Tape,” we understand Kerouac’s brilliance. His desire the get at the truth of experience and character springs from this interaction, and we can see how this novel and indeed all of Kerouac’s books, are attempts at paleontological reconstruction, at putting flesh on the bones of the past.
And of course, Kerouac processes his truths so wonderfully, and with such bittersweet sentiment, that we cannot help but love them. “Blowing fogs wham across the bush at the top of the great altitude cool pass — golden airs are being propelled in a height — we can’t see below the parapet, ‘ too white and misty, just a yellow ribbon and a green valley like a sea below it, dwellings in between like eyries.” As a work on its own, Visions of Cody may be troubling or confusing. But for anyone who has read On the Road (Penguin Great Books of the 20th Century) or any of Kerouac’s other masterpieces, this mutated book is a joyful giant. Read it and join the endless dialogue that is America.