I hear ya..."amazingly frustrating" is something I've said to myself more than once, eventually the whole thing begins to make sense ...really.
Before giving up on the card, you want to give it one more go? I have cards with this same chipset that are functional with redhat 9.0, so it's do-able and it's not real hard to get going once you get things set up. Can you explain briefly what steps you've taken to get this card working so far, and then we'll take it from there.
regarding the kernel, if you did a typical installation of redhat 9.0 you shouldn't need to compile a kernel in order to get this card to work, IMO, compiling a new kernel should never be the first attempt to solve a hardware issue, for the inexperienced it usually creates more problems than it solves and with the latest distros it's rarely required. gcc is a C compiler. In linux, many things are distributed only as C source code which you compile on your own machine, gcc along with all sorts of supporting utils is used to compile the source into binaries.
Speaking of gcc and source-code, this is how you will get a driver for your 520+ card working, downloading source-code and compiling it into a kernel module. you may want to try downloading and installing the same module I'm using for redhat 9. See my howto page for this chipset for whether you'll be able to do that or will have to compile your own (preferred method).