The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth—that's what you're expected to tell if you're ever a witness testifying in a court of law. That means no frills, no fancy stuff. Just state the facts and do it to the best of your ability.
Okay, so it might seem weird to mention the words like "truth" and "honesty" when we're dealing with a novel where almost every character we meet is lying for about 90% of it. But then again, they've got their reasons. It's up to you to decide if they're good ones—and you've got to come to conclusions about a whole lot more. Did Beau deserve to die? Is there such a thing as justice for a person of color in Louisiana, or anywhere in the U.S.? In other words, Gaines is putting a black robe around your shoulders and slapping a gavel in your hand and making you the judge.
That's why the novel reads like a series of statements given to law enforcement personnel or in front of a jury in a crowded court room. No matter who it is who's doing the talking, you're getting a straight up break-down of what happened at Mathu's place, after the fact. Some of the characters might not have been totally honest with others when everything went down out at Mathu's that fateful day, but everybody is straight-up with us. It comes across in the simple and straightforward way they talk to us.
When literary folks talk about Realism, they're usually talking about stuff from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that gives you an up-close and personal look at the lives of people who are struggling to survive—like the poor, the down and out, and the working class. The only thing, though, is that this stuff was usually written by people who were rich enough to afford being able to sit on their duffs and write novels instead of being forced to shovel pig guts on a factory floor.
A Gathering of Old Men definitely takes us into the world of people who have been oppressed, abused, and marginalized, but the key difference is that Gaines has first-hand experience of what life like that is like—and he's worked that into one seriously powerful novel. Not only that, but Gaines is doing everything he can to let these folks speak for themselves—which is why we hear from them and not some preachy third-person narrator like you might find in a Charles Dickens novel.
Still, A Gathering of Old Men is a novel that tries to paint an accurate picture of the way life is for a very specific group of people in a very specific part of the US, and Gaines doesn't pull any punches. That's why, when it comes to this novel's genre, it's realism all the way.
In the same kind of way that a movie about Superman is going to be called Superman, it makes sense that A Gathering of Old Men is called A Gathering of Old Men because that's what the novel is focusing on. But you've always got to keep in mind that Gaines loves folding some more complicated stuff into all sorts of things that seem really simple at first, from character interactions to the way a specific scene is narrated. The title of his novel is no different.
First and foremost, just give the title a second—or third—think. What could be more harmless than a gathering of old men? Seems pretty innocent, doesn't it? It just so happens, though, that these guys aren't meeting up to watch a slideshow of Mathu's fabulous pleasure cruise to the Bahamas (just so we're clear, Mathu never goes to the Bahamas). Their toting shotguns and they're ready for a fight. There's more to the title than meets the eye, just like there's a whole lot more going on with the old men hanging out at Mathu's place. Sure, it's a safe bet that they're all there to support Mathu, but they've all got their own scores to settle and their own reasons for being fed up with bigots like Fix. That's not exactly the same thing as getting together to for a few rounds of shuffleboard.
And then there's the way the novel itself is written: as a series of voices coming together to make a single cohesive story. Sure, not all of those voices come from elderly folks—and not all of the voices belong to men (hearing from a few more women would have been cool, though)—but the chapters of the novel itself are a kind of gathering of different people and perspectives. It's Gaines's way of emphasizing and helping us appreciate the importance and strength of a sense of community among people of color even in the face of some seriously intense problems. And it just so happens that we think that's worth appreciating, too.
By the time the novel ends, you've spent so much time with the folks out at Marshall that you can probably see "the bushes and weeds," that grow "so tall that the road […] seems no wider than a king-sized bedsheet," as clearly as if they were right outside your own window (8.3). Maybe you're even craving a few of those pecans that characters keep mentioning.
That's why it might come as a surprise to you that, in the final chapter, Gaines takes us out of Marshall and puts us inside a courtroom in a big city. And after we've spent so much time with so many of the old men (and we haven't even heard from all of them), it also might come as a surprise to you that we end with an image of Lou Dimes and Candy standing together as they watch Mathu and his pals drive away in Clatoo's pick-up
Remember: Gaines's novel is all about the characters, their relationships, and what those characters and those relationships represent. Candy and Lou are a great example. Candy embodies that next generation of Southern white folks, rooted to a single spot and still stuck in a really old-fashioned way of thinking. Lou, meanwhile, represents the world outside of all of that, even a way out of all of that—a new and more enlightened way of understanding how things work.
Oh, and it's also worth remembering that they had a nasty fight not too long before we see them again. The fact that they're holding hands signifies that what's gone down at Marshall has created the possibility of the worldview that Candy represents changing for the better, which is Gaines's way of telling us that a better and brighter future is possible. Heck, we even learn that Gil is sitting with his family watching the trial, which tells us that even Fix has come around to at least kind of accepting the fact that his son doesn't think the way he does.
So how do Mathu and his pals figure into all of this? Well, the ending represents a new start for all of them, too. They've proven that they can take a stand, fight back, and take control of their own lives. That image of all of them driving away together is meant to show us that this whole experience has made an already tightly-knit community come even more closely together. All in all, it's a pretty happy ending—but it's still one that's designed to make us think.
Forget what you might be thinking about Mardis Gras beads and gators, or jambalaya and crawfish pie. Gaines might be taking us deep into Louisiana, but this is no pleasure cruise or all-expenses paid vacation to the Big Easy.
When Gaines takes us to Louisiana, he shows us a part of the state that most tourists don't get to see—the grounds of an old slowly decaying plantation. We get little glimpses of Cajun country and a big city courtroom, but Marshall is really where all of the action goes down. Of course, Marshall Plantation itself doesn't exist in real life (this is fiction, after all), but Gaines wants to take us there for a reason. The plantation—and that's any plantation—is a symbol of the slave days, of cotton, commerce, and way things used to run in the South before the Civil War.
Marshall may be run down, but it's still there. And, wouldn't you know it, so are the attitudes and ideas that went along with slavery: racism, elitism, and a whole lot of resistance to any and all kinds of change. The grounds and buildings are all slowly falling apart (kind of like some of the characters who live there), which is Gaines's way of suggesting, yet again, that those attitudes and ideas have no business being allowed to stick around just the way they are. Marshall Plantation needs some fixing, and so do some characters' attitudes. We mean serious repairs.
Back in the day, owning a plantation meant owning a lot of land, and that's pretty much still what it means in A Gathering of Old Men, even if some of that land has been leased to other families like the Boutans. A whole lot of that land was used for growing crops—usually cotton, sugar or tobacco. Some of that land, though, had to be used to house the people who were forced to harvest that cotton, sugar or tobacco. That's where the slave quarters came in.
Maybe you were wondering why some of the old folks you met kept talking about "the quarters," or maybe you've already kind of figured out why that is. The place where the guys live at Marshall also happens to be the area of the plantation that was at one time used to house slaves. And that includes Mathu's place, too.
Now, it's not so much that Gaines is trying to tell us that the old men out at Marshall are still basically some white person's property—not by a long shot. What Gaines is trying to tell us with that, though, is that the South's shameful past still affects the lives of people of color living in the present.
For that reason, this book isn't historical fiction. It's set in the 1970s for crying out loud. Disco dancing, bellbottoms, and… virulent racism? You bet. Gaines point out that the deep racial divides were not just brushed aside after the Civil Rights Movement. Things, especially in the South, were still difficult for African Americans long afterward. Living in old slave quarters, the characters in this book are literally stuck in a racist place and time.
Like Candy's threat to some of the old men makes clear, many of them still live there—not just because their families lived there, but because they really don't have the means to go anywhere else. And that has to do with how hard it still was for African Americans, especially in the South, to have the same opportunities that white people have. It's no coincidence that frustration with the way that things are, and the way that things have been, is a big part of why they all show up at Mathu's place.
As far as the language goes, it's not like you're trying to read The Odyssey in the original Greek when you pick up A Gathering of Old Men. Still, there are times when Gaines takes you so far into the Deep South it may feel like you're visiting an entirely different country. Gaines wants us to be a little disoriented at times, because he wants us to realize that part of what makes racism so dangerous is that it's not nearly as cut and dry as people think. Part of challenging our ideas of how racism actually works is allowing the ones who've experienced it to speak for themselves. That's why, instead of chapters, Gaines gives us sections of the book that come right out of the mouths of the novel's characters—most of them Black. This can be a little challenging at times—like when we get a peek into the mind of a white guy who happens to be a total racist jerkstore bigot—but Gaines wants to take us out of our comfort zone and make us think long and hard about some tough, but important, questions.
Most of the characters you meet in Gaines's novel are simple, salt-of-the-earth type folks who think that a person is only as good as their word and that there's no need for ten-dollar words and fancy turns-of-phrase. That makes for a novel that reads like a series of long conversations with people who just want to tell it like it is, whether we agree with them or not. At times, characters get so casual with their explanations that we miss some of the subtler stuff that's going on when they're talking to us. Just take a look at this example from our good friend Cherry Bello describing one of the lighter moments in A Gathering of Old Men:
I was still looking across the field when I heard the shot. I turned just in time to see a little rabbit bobbing across the empty rows […] I looked back at Billy and Dirty Red. Billy was just bringing the gun down from his shoulder. Me and Yank was waiting for him and Dirty Red to catch up.
"Missed him, huh, Billy?" I asked.
Billy didn't answer. He wouldn't even look at me and Yank. He was too 'shamed.
I hope he don't miss Fix like that, Dirty Red teased Billy. Dirty Red had a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth, and he held his head a little to the side to keep the smoke out his eyes. "Rabbit was so close I started to hit him in the head with the butt of my gun, but I wanted Billy to have him."
"He was moving," Billy said. He said it quietly. He wouldn't look at us. (6.9-13)
Before we start thinking about what gets said in that passage up there, think for a couple of minutes about how it's said. We've got phrases like "Me and yank" instead of "Yank and me," the shortened word "'shamed" instead of "ashamed." Gaines is really trying to capture the feel of everyday conversation here.
And then there's what's being said. Gaines weaves in some really nice descriptions of characters in Cherry's comments, but he makes it feel like it's just Cherry talking and explaining things to us. Not only that, but we get a little dose of characterization, too. Cherry bags on Billy in kind of an indirect way, which tells you he's kind of a nice guy. Dirty Red, on the other hand, bags on Billy a little harder. He that tells us that he's kind of a jokester (but not necessarily that he's mean). And, of course, we get a little glimpse at Billy's sense of pride in this passage, too.
Of course, the simple and direct style contrasts pretty sharply with the painful memories that so many of the characters share with us, and that gives those memories some serious added oomph so that they really stick with us and make us think.
You're going to need a permit if you want to go around packing a shotgun, but you don't need any kind of fancy paperwork to unpack just why it is those shotguns that keep on coming up over and over again are important.
First of all, the fact that a group of elderly African American dudes have shown up toting firearms sends a clear message to some of the less likeable white characters in Gaines's novel. If you need some proof, just take second look—or a third or fourth—at part of the conversation that Gil tries to have with Fix at the Boutan place. He warms up with talking about what he saw when he stopped at Marshall himself:
"I saw something over there, Papa—something you, I, none of us in this room has ever seen before. A bunch of old Black men with shotguns, Papa. Old men, your age, Parrain's age, and Monsieur Auguste's age, all with shotguns, Papa. Waiting for you."
"N*****s with shotguns waiting for me?" Fix asked. His dark piglike eyes opened just a little bit wider. (12.66-7)
Fix being Fix, he just can't avoid saying some racist stuff, but that's not all that's going on here. It's a safe bet that Gil isn't exaggerating when he says that no white person living in Louisiana has seen anything like the sights out at Marshall Plantation. And you can tell that Fix is more than slightly shocked. The fact that the men have gathered at Mathu's with guns in hand signifies that the way things are isn't the way that things are going to be. It means change. And that change means that the folks getting pushed around aren't going to let themselves get pushed around anymore.
We really can't stress enough how important Beau's murder is to Gaines's novel. It's the one event that literally sets everything in motion and turns the small part of Louisiana that Gaines shows us on its head.
Beau's murder isn't just important to the plot of the novel, though. It's also got a pretty important symbolic significance as well. And, given that we've got around fifty of them in this novel, this significance is going to vary ever so slightly, depending on which of these characters you're looking at.
For folks like Fix, Tee Jack, and Luke Will, for example, Beau's murder is taken as both a challenge to the racist order they represent and a signal that things are in danger of changing around those parts, which means they're not going to be a part of the group that gets to call the shots anymore. And for the Black community that Gaines introduces to us in the novel, Beau's murder means more than just one less redneck jerk they need to worry about. For them, Beau's death—and taking turns trying to take responsibility for it—represents a kind of justice. It's not quite the vigilante justice that Fix and Luke Will are after, but a kind of punishment that Beau is forced to suffer for his crimes—as well as the crimes of his father and the crimes of racist lunatics like Luke Will and his buddies.
And then, of course, there's Charlie Biggs, the guy who actually pulled the trigger and laid Beau out. When Charlie starts explaining that just why it was he put a cap in Beau Boutan, he lets loose with some pretty eye-brow raising stuff. "He used to 'buse me," Charlie says (and he's talking about Beau), and he just goes on from there:
No matter if I did twice the work any other man could do, he 'bused me anyhow. I can pick up more than any man I ever met. Give me a good plate of food, and I can work longer than any man I ever met. Pull a saw, swing an axe, stretch a wire, cut ditch bank, dig postholes better than any man I ever met. Still he 'bused me. Cussed me for no cause at all. N***** this, n***** than, for no cause at all. Just to 'buse me. (15.52).
Charlie makes it pretty clear that he was sick of not being treated like a human being. For Charlie, murdering Beau (who had plans to kill him, by the way) represents proof that he's entitled to the same amount of respect as anybody, regardless of what color their skin happens to be. For Charlie, Beau Boutan equals abuse. Beau's death means breaking a long cycle of abuse. Whether or not violence justifies violence—well, that's another question. All the same, it's a really key question that we don't think Gaines is trying to avoid.
For most people—and maybe you're one of them—the first thing that comes to mind when you think of a cemetery is death. Or maybe you think of a group of people—mourners—all dressed in black and crying as they say good-bye to somebody they loved. None of that is exactly stuff that makes you feel good, does it?
But when Cherry starts talking about the cemetery where he and the old men are hanging out before they head on down to Mathu's place, that particular cemetery has to do with a whole lot more than sadness and death. Let's listen to what Cherry has to say:
You had a dozen trees spread out over the graveyard, and about the same number of headstones, maybe two or three more. But twenty-five, thirty years ago, you didn't have more than two or three headstones in there all total. Back there when I was growing up, people didn't even mark graves. Each family had a little plot, and everybody knowed where that little plot was. If it was a big family, then they had to have a littmore, sometimes from the plot of a smaller family. But who cared? They had all come from the same place, they had mixed together when they was alive, so what's the difference if they mixed together now? That old graveyard had been the burial ground for Black folks ever since the time of slavery. I was seventy-four, and I had grandparents in there. (6.19)
Whew—that's a huge chunk of text, but a ton of stuff is happening there. Cherry's comments make it clear that the cemetery has been around for a long, long while—since the time of slavery, in fact. This makes the cemetery a piece of real and very vibrant history. Then there's the way Cherry describes how families would share plots—how individual families became mixed into one large group. These images of sharing are meant to make us realize just how strong the sense of community is among the African Americans living at or around Marshall. But Gaines doesn't stop there.
Cherry gives us a seriously touching image of Jacob Aguillard pulling up the weeds that had grown up around his sister Tessie's grave and saying a small prayer when he'd finished. This tells us that the cemetery isn't just a place where you go to mourn. It's a place where you go to think and remember. "Next thing you knowed," Cherry tells us, "every last one of us was in there visiting our people's graves" (6.22). At one point, Cherry even tries to start up a conversation with Dirty Red, telling him "I reckon a lot of them in here go'n be proud after this day's over" (6.45). This little bit of dialogue is Gaines's way of showing us that the men who decide to stand together at Marshall aren't just doing it for themselves. They're taking a stand on behalf of the family they've lost who spent a lifetime breaking their backs and working on their knees, in part because they feel like they owe it to their family and friends to do it.
How many times has somebody asked you to look them in the eye? Of all of the images that Gaines gives us in his novel, we've got to say that the most crucial imagery is all about the eyes. That is to say, it's all about eye contact.
When a character, usually an African American character, refuses to look another character—usually a white character—in the eyes, it's usually a sign of anxiety, fear, or submission to their authority. When they look that white character in the eyes, that's another story. Just take a minute to check out this comparison Gaines sets up for us between Billy Washington and Gable Rauand when Mapes starts questioning the men out at Mathu's place. "Unlike Uncle Billy," or so Lou Dimes tells us, "who never raised his eyes higher than Mapes's chest, Gable looked him straight in the face." And, just in case we don't get exactly what that means, Gaines (with a little help from Lou, of course) gives us this super-intense moment:
"I shot him," Gable said.
Mapes clamped his teeth so hard that the muscles in his heavy jowls began to quiver. His right hand came up slowly—then pow. Gable's faced jerked to the side, but came right back. His eyes watered, but he stared at Mapes right in the face […]
"You can do it all day long," Gable said to Mapes.
Mapes slapped him again. Gable's face jerked to the side just a little. His eyes blinked for a moment; then he was looking Mapes in the face again. (8.120-24)
The fact that Gable stares at Mapes dead in the eyes signals to us that he isn't afraid of Mapes or the law he represents, and the fact that he's not willing to give Mapes the satisfaction of seeing him weaken proves that.
No matter how you slice it, seeing and not seeing, who sees what, and where people look are all important things to think about in A Gathering of Old Men.
From the time we're with Snookum when he sees Beau's body out in front of Mathu's house, to that last bitter-sweet second when we're watching Mathu and his pals drive away from the courthouse in Clatoo's pick-up, Gaines wants us right smack in the middle of the action in his novel. That's one of the reasons why Gaines uses a nifty combination of narrators who tell us a little bit about themselves or their own experiences
For example, when we're with Mat, he talks to his wife about why he's helping Mathu. And there are other characters who do a lot more talking about other people in the novel, like Lou Dimes, Sully, or old Rufe. It makes what's going on seem a whole lot more immediate and real.
It also allows Gaines to ratchet up the suspense or to make us start asking questions, kind of like when Lou notices all of the old men heading to the back of Mathu's place but he just assumes they're all taking turns using the outhouse. What they're actually doing, of course, is loading live ammo into their shotguns to get ready for a firefight—but we don't find that out until Rooster tells us so.
Along with all of that, it's also important to remember that Gaines's novel is all about people who've never been given a say or allowed to have voice getting their say. That's why Gaines makes the voices of the Black characters so central to his story.
If Beau Boutan hadn't been such an awful human being, maybe he could have avoided getting shot. But it just so happens that he was an awful human being, and now he's collecting flies on Mathu's lawn. It also just so happens that his death is what sets the story in motion. If Beau hadn't turned up dead, Snookum would have just gone on happily munching on his turnips (well, maybe not too happily—they are turnips after all). It's his mad dash through the quarters at Marshall that introduces us to our first set of characters and starts us on the journey of finding out what's what and who's who.
As if somebody offing somebody else isn't enough to get things nice and complicated, there's that pesky question of trying to figure out who did it, and why. Sheriff Mapes is totally convinced that it's Mathu from the get-go, but a whole lot of other people are doing their best to make sure that Mapes has his work cut out for him trying to prove it. They show up with shotguns on their shoulders, ready and willing to cop to Beau's murder and all. Another part of what makes this so complicated is that pretty much everybody there has plenty of motive for killing him, because they've been bullied, terrorized, and tortured their whole lives for no reason other than the color of their skin by people who look and think a lot like Beau. They want to make sure that Mapes understands that. Mapes doesn't get it, and these people are still playing a dangerous game when you remember Fix Boutan's nasty reputation.
Almost from the very beginning, the good people at Marshall are talking about Fix Boutan like he's less a person and more a kind of scary story you tell little kids to get them to behave. He's a real-life monster that would kill an innocent man, woman, or child as easily as he would swat a fly, and do a whole lot more damage besides. It's Fix Boutan, in fact, that has Mapes so anxious to get to the bottom of Beau's murder, because he—like everybody else out at Marshall—knows exactly what Fix can do when he's angry.
But then we meet Gil and his buddy Sully, and we learn that Fix—even though he really wants to—isn't going to do a dang thing after all (thanks to his son and his brother, Jean). That's a real game-changer. Of course, we also meet Luke Will, and that's going to be a game-changer too, because Luke Will's the kind of guy who's angry about a lot of things a lot the time, and you can bet he's not happy with Fix's decision not to get his revenge.
Fix and his gang may not be showing up, but we've still got to find out who up and killed Beau for being the monster that he was. Once we find out that it was Charlie who did it, that's pretty much the beginning of the end. And, since the Boutan clan won't be riding down to Marshall, that should mean that we can all breathe a huge sigh of relief and just sit back, relax, and enjoy the rest of the novel… except Luke Will has other ideas (along with a group of drunken idiot friends with guns). All of the racial tension that's been hanging out just below the surface explodes on up and out—along with a few dozen shotgun shells—and when the smoke clears we're approaching the novel's resolution.
We go from one version of old-school justice to another. We read Lou's rundown of the trial that decides the fate of all of the folks—Black and white alike—who traded shots that fateful night on the Marshall Plantation. The trial—with a judge, jury, and finally a verdict—is Gaines's super-direct signal to us that this is the end. In court, once the judge passes sentence and bangs his gavel, that's the end of it, and that's pretty much how Gaines's novel works. At the same time, Gaines still wants us to weigh the evidence and come to a conclusion about what happened all on our own.