Generation X

Southern Lit 9: “A Gathering of Old Men”

In Ernest Gaines’ 1983 novel A Gathering of Old Men, Beau Boutan is lying dead in the weeds from a shotgun blast, and those who arrive on the scene can’t be certain of who shot him. But everyone is sure that Fix is coming to avenge the murder. The problem – beyond the dead white man in the black quarters of the backwaters Deep South – begins when the call goes out from Candy, a young white woman who is the heiress of the Marshall plantation, for every black man who owns a shotgun to get there quickly with a spent No. 5 shell.

Set in 1970s Louisiana, Gaines’ novel takes the Faulknerian approach of allowing a variety of characters to narrate their perspectives chapter-by-chapter. The tale begins with Snookum, a young boy who is sent on Candy’s errand to gather the old men of the black community, and as he runs to do it, he passes first Mathu, who is “black black with a white beard,” and then a tractor in the field, still running, with its load of cane: two integral components of the novel’s story.

As the brief chapters reel off, we learn in fits and snatches about some of the other characters who will play a role in the oncoming confrontation: the sheriff Mapes, the reporter Lou Dimes, the notorious Fix. Using a mixture of dialect and traditional style, A Gathering of Old Men weaves us into the fabric of a paternalistic, white-dominated rural society in fictional St. Raphael Parish, where the Major is drunk first thing in the morning and where the violent history is long and deep, as in this underdeveloped anecdote narrated early in the novel:

I tried to remember what Fix had done to Clatoo. I knew most of the history of that river and of that parish the past fifty years. I tried to remember now what Fix and Clatoo had it about. Then I remembered. It was not Fix, it was that crazy brother of his, Forest Boutan, who had tried to rape one of Clatoo’s sisters. She had defended herself by chopping him half dozen times with a cane knife. She didn’t kill him but he was was well marked for the rest of his days. And she was sent to the pen for the rest of hers, where after so many years she died insane. That happened just before the Second World War.

As the beginnings of the narrative unfold, the dialogue among the characters shares the central problem: as one of the violent and unsavory Boutans lay dead, Mathu claims that he did it, Candy claims that she did it, and “two old fools down there, Rufe and Johnny Paul, [are also] claiming they did it.” The important thing is to gather everyone there, as Candy has instructed, before Mapes arrives.

The first few old black men to add their puzzle pieces are fishing buddies Chimley and Mat, then Cherry, then Clatoo, who’ve we just heard about. Clatoo has an old truck and is already carpooling the widely scattered men, including the ever-smoking Dirty Red, to points where they walk to their destination.

The first white man to arrive at the scene of the killing is Lou Dimes, a young reporter in Baton Rouge and Candy’s boyfriend. Lou Dimes adds slightly more clarity to the locale being employed when he shares that he drove thirty-five miles to Marshall, which would set this place in real-life Pointe Coupee Parish along the Mississippi River, north of Baton Rouge, the place where Ernest Gaines was raised. Lou is immediately baffled when Candy tells him that she has killed Beau, then by hearing similar admissions from black men assembled there. But just as Lou is attempting more emphatically to know the truth, Mapes arrives with his lackey of a young deputy Griffin.

Mapes is the archetypal Deep Southern sheriff. He is six-foot-four and very large, slow moving and deliberate, sweating and always prepared for brutality. After ordering his squirrelly deputy around a bit, Mapes stops to listen to Candy’s explanation of what happened: “Beau Boutan still lived in the past [ . . . ] He still thought he could beat people like his paw did thirty, forty years ago.” Beau had been beating Charlie, a black man who worked for him, and when Charlie ran to Mathu’s house, Beau was ordered to go no further; when he didn’t heed the order, Candy shot him. To all that, Mapes responds by telling Griffin, “Bring me one of them,” and Griffin picks out first one weak-looking man, then another for Mapes to alternately question and slap around. However, that tactic goes nowhere, and by the end of Lou Dimes’ twenty-page chapter, we have a stronger sense of the complex, race-based social structure of this isolated place with its long history of violence.

However, the next narrator, Rufe, explains that Mathu is the exception to the rule among the black men who live there:

Mapes was a lot of things. He was big, mean, brutal. But Mapes respected a man. Mathu was a man, and Mapes respected Mathu. But he didn’t think much of the rest of us, and he didn’t respect us.

[ . . .]

He like Mathu. Even when Mathu got into trouble and he had to arrest Mathu, he knowed it wasn’t Mathu’s doing. But he knowed Mathu had never backed down from anybody, either. Maybe that’s why he like him. To him Mathu was a real man. The rest of us wasn’t.

Up to this point in the novel, Mathu has been non-responsive, looking off into the distance when  questioned. In a culture where black men were allowed neither manhood nor dignity, Mathu has both, even now in old age.

It is around this point that the novel shifts. During the first third or a little more, we see the scuttling-about of elderly men whose vigor and vitality have passed, who have lived their lives in obeisance to a humiliating and unjust way of life, who now commune in the shared experience of violence and cruelty doled out by men like Mapes and the Boutans. But today, those times are over, and this killing of Beau Boutan has necessitated what must come next: a face-off between the guardians of the old order and their victims who will step aside no more.

After Mapes has employed his usual forms of intimidation and has been stymied the men who refuse to buckle under, the moment comes suddenly when the tide shifts. As Mapes questions Johnny Paul about the quandary at hand, Johnny Paul’s answers become enigmatic and take on a new force, which confuses the old-school lawman.

“I see,” Mapes said.

“No, you don’t,” Johnny Paul said. ” No, you don’t. You had to be here to don’t see it now. You can’t just come down here every now and then. You had to live here seventy-seven years to don’t see it now. No, Sheriff, you don’t see. You don’t even know what I don’t see.”

Mapes tries to maintain control of the situation, telling Johnny Paul, “Tell me. But make it quick,” to which he snaps back,

“You still don’t see [ . . . ] You still don’t see. I don’t have to make nothing quick. I can take all the time in the world I want, and it ain’t nothing you can do but take me to jail. You can’t slap me hard enough to hurt me no more, Sheriff.”

Johnny Paul then schools the sheriff on the lessons of work and time and generations and place. The old black man goes into how he and others like him worked that land and built lives there and died there, but then machinery was brought in to replace them. Times had changed in agriculture, and that was a choice made by white people, and now they would be changing in race relations, too— and that would be a choice made by black people. The day of submitting quietly has passed, as evidenced by the men’s treatment of the frightened accommodationist preacher Jameson:

“Get a gun if you want to talk, Jameson,” Clatoo said, from where he was sitting on the garry.

“No, Mr. Clatoo,” Jameson said, “I won’t get a gun.”

“Then you better shut up,” Clatoo said.” People with guns speak first here today.”

The tension of the middle part of A Gathering of Old Men centers on the airing of old grievances and of truths told by tongues that have been held for a long time, all of which create for a reader a patchwork history of racial injustice enforced by bitter violence, even against women and children.

The novel’s focus then shifts to the family of the victim, the fabled Boutans. Although the majority of them have remained in the area to continue their habits of domination, one among them has moved away and made a fresh start. Gilbert Boutan, who is called Gil, has gone to LSU and become a star fullback on the football team, and what is more important to this story, his best good friend, on the field and off, is a black halfback named Calvin Harrison. Together, the two young men are called “Salt” and “Pepper.”

Back in Marshall, though, the old ways are front and center, and the new ways are being challenged, when Gil must face the death of his (white) brother in the black quarters, just as he prepares to play in the most important football game of his life. Gil, who has crossed the color line by becoming so close with Cal, must ask himself the hard questions about race, family, and friendship. Where the backwater Boutan family represents his roots, Cal and football represent the future— and Gil must choose.

When Gil arrives back home with his friend Sully, we finally get to meet the ubiquitous Fix Boutan as he presides over family and friends who have convened at their home. Fix is strange creature with a Cajun-French August and “dark pig eyes.” Here, Gil Boutan is also presented with the fiery viciousness of Luke Will, a local white-trash hellion who wants to go to the scene with all of the violence they can muster. In his family’s home, he must choose choose between Luke Will’s wild vigilantism and Fix’s old-school, family-centered concept of honor. However, Gil cannot go along with either; instead his response to his father is:

Those days are gone, Papa, [ . . . ] Those days when you just take the law in your own hands— those days are gone. These are the ’70s, son to be the ’80s. Not the ’20s, the ’30s, or the ’40s. People died – people we knew – died to change those things. Those days are gone forever, I hope.

By contrast, Fix cannot understand the idea that anything could matter more than than family: not football, not race relations, not reputation. For Fix, nothing has changed: there is family, and any notions of violence center on that. All Fix knows is that his son was killed, and justice must follow— but ultimately, family is the most important thing. When he is goaded one last time by Luke Will to go seek retribution without Gil, Fix’s answer is this:

I won’t go without my sons. [ . . . ] All my sons. There will be no split in this family. Family. The majority, or none.

Luke Will wants “war” with the black men who have gathered, but Fix is “not interested.” However, yielding to Gil does not mean that Fix has lost his hold what he values most. Gil must then pay the price of exile for his refusal to put family first:

Leave, Gi-bear. [ . . . ] Go on. That is your mon’s bed you sit on. Where you were born, where Beau was born, where all you were born. Now you desecrate the bed with your body on it. Go block. Go run the ball. Let it take the place of family. Let it bring flowers to that cemetery, La Toussaint. I don’t wish to see you in this house, or at that cemetery. Go. Go run the ball.

As that chapter ends and moves into the next, it becomes clear that these two strands of the story – the gathered black men and the showdown over the white response – will meet by way of the rabble-rouser Luke Will, who lets it be known that he will seek vengeance against the blacks even if Fix won’t. Next we see Luke Will, he has gathered a pitiful assemblage of friends enter a local bar, where they consume liquid courage and become progressively more belligerent. The young men see themselves as the avengers who set order – white supremacy – back in place.

Back in the quarters, Mapes see no other option that to arrest Mathu and charge him with murder. The stalemate had worked, but the big lawman had to make a decision. Though Candy pleads on his behalf, Mathu concedes to the arrest, but not before giving a speech to the assembled black men who have finally stood up for themselves. Mathu admits that, like Mapes, he never took any of them seriously, but now, “I been changed.”

But the story isn’t over yet. As Mathu is being arrested, Charlie emerges from the cabin where Mathu has been on the porch. Charlie is an enormous black man, six-foot-seven, 275 lbs, so large that he is bursting our of his clothes, with “a round cannonball head” and “lips like pieces of liver.” Charlie has been little discussed throughout the narrative, and we have been left to assume that he was long gone. Charlie was the one working with Beau Boutan, the man Beau was beating, and the man Beau was chasing when he was ordered to halt. Yet, Charlie was not long gone. He was in the cabin, listening, and now he emerges, saying insistently, “I’m a man” over and over to everyone there.

Charlie explains, in his open confession to the sheriff, which clears up the whole mystery, that he had run from Beau Boutan that day, just as he always run from trouble. But “they comes a day when a man got to stand,” and today was that day for Charlie. After he shot and killed Beau Boutan, he made plans to go North and had run and run, but no matter where he went, he was still on the Marshall property, where he had been running from people his whole life. So he came back. And in the final pages of A Gathering of Old Men, we finally find out who killed Beau Boutan.

But the story still isn’t over yet. As the mystery is resolved, both for Mapes and for the reader, Luke Will “just had to show up.” In the semi-farcical shootout that ends the narrative, bullets and people fly in every direction, and the theme of the novel is summed up by Charlie, who tells Dirty Red, “Life’s so sweet when you know you ain’t no more coward,” shortly before he dies from a gunshot to the belly. And Mapes was left to clean up the mess, legal and otherwise.

It would be too easy to say that A Gathering of Old Men is a novel about a group of black men giving comeuppance to their white oppressors. That is certainly at the core, but so much more is going on. The novel deals with archetypal subjects (time and change, technology and labor, the importance of family) and with subjects from the Deep South’s regional culture (manhood defined by toughness, Christianity as a pacifying force, the prominence of college football). Perhaps most importantly, the novel provides an array of examples evidencing how the law and legality were fluid concepts, kept so to benefit white people and disadvantage black people. We see this in Mapes’ handling of the stalemate, in the Boutans’ vengeful handling of black people, and in Luke Will’s aggravated handling of what he considers justice.

Strangely, in looking into critical perspectives about the novel, most said what I expected they would, but I noticed that the SparkNotes claims that Candy is the protagonist of the novel. Certainly, she is present at both the beginning of the novel and at the end, and her co-dependent relationship with Mathu lies at the heart of the conflict, but I see her more as a catalyst than a protagonist. To me, proclaiming Candy to be the character whose motivations drive the plot would devalue so much of the rich content and dynamic characters that Gaines created. No, A Gathering of Old Men lies squarely in a relatively new tradition of post-Civil Rights fiction from the 1980s that gave mainstream America black authors’ perspectives on historical realities. Among those works are, of course, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple from 1982, Toni Morrison’s Beloved from 1987, and Randall Kenan’s A Visitation of Sprits from 1989. To relegate Gaines’ novel to being the centered on the white woman who attempts to take the blame for the beloved old black man who attempts to take the blame . . . No, white recognition of new realities is an important element of the novel, but it is not the central theme.

Instead, the characters in A Gathering of Old Men all seem to address one common issue: the history of racial injustice that is now being dealt with openly. While change has brought pain in some ways – the death of family members, the loss of identity – it has also brought the circumstances for every man to stand up for himself as Mathu has always done. Charlie stands up to Beau, Johnny Paul stands up to Mapes, Gil stands up to Fix, and so on. In this new social order, a man can be a man, no matter his skin color, no matter his meekness in past days, and now, the way it always been doesn’t have to be the way it is anymore.

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