We're going to have to put the chuckles on hold for a minute, because there's no joking about Fix Boutan. The father of Beau and Beau's brother Gil, and the undisputed head of the Boutan clan even if he is getting on in years, Fix is as serious as a heart attack and just as deadly. If there's one character that haunts the pages of Gaines's novel, it's him, and that means he's going to need some serious attention.
With pretty much every character in A Gathering of Old Men, Gaines wants to give us a history lesson. Sometimes Gaines weaves that history into the stories and experiences other characters share or the things we see. At other times, Gaines is pretty up front with us. And when it comes to dealing with Fix and his family, this is one of those times.
You see, Fix—like a lot of the other white characters we meet in A Gathering of Old Men (including Lou Dimes)—is Cajun. Understanding Gaines's novel—and understanding Fix—means we've got to spend a little time talking about just what that means.
The word "Cajun" is actually a watered-down version of the French word Acadien, and it describes a group of French-speaking folks that British troops kicked out of a French-controlled part of Canada back in the middle of the eighteenth century (give or take a decade or two). A whole bunch of them settled in the southern part of Louisiana—and they weren't always welcome there.
Exiles that they were, they were poor—many of them under-educated and less sophisticated than the wealthy elite that ran the Louisiana plantations. To keep it short, they were considered pretty inferior to the higher class whites in the territory. Most of them were forced to settle in the wilderness and work as farmhands for some filthy rich plantation owner.
Just in case you were wondering, Gaines wants to make sure that we understand these kinds of snobby attitudes still exist in Louisiana today and that they aren't just reserved for Cajun folks. This is why, when Luke Will tries to talk to the Major in Tee Jack's bar, old Jack Marshall just either avoids looking at Luke altogether, or looks at him "with no more feeling than if he was looking at a chinaball tree or a fence post" (13.63). Don't get us wrong: Luke Will is an awful human being, but that's not why the Major is treating him like garbage. The Major wants Luke to understand that he's better than Luke… because he's better off than Luke.
But that's not exactly the case where Fix and his brood are concerned. For the "past twenty-five, thirty years," or so Cherry lets us know, the Boutan clan had been "leasing the plantation from the Marshall family" and buying up huge chunks of land where they keep on growing, harvesting, and selling sugar cane (6.7). What that means is that Fix and his gang have money. Yup, Fix is an example of a regular rags-to-riches story, but don't let that get in the way of hating him. Part of how Fix and his family got where they are has to do with what a mean, vicious and brutal monster Fix was—and is.
In a book that's not without its share of completely awful and stomach-turning characters, there's no getting around the fact that Fix Boutan is about as awful as they come. Long before we ever actually see Fix, it's super-obvious that every other character—even some of the white characters—are terrified of the man.
Just as an example, from the minute that Janey learns that Fix's kid has been shot dead, and in all likelihood by a Black man, she's scared to death. She's crying uncontrollably, reduced to a bundle of nerves and a ball of anxiety at the thought of "Fix and his drove coming in them trucks with them guns any minute now" (2.4). She knows that, no matter how awful Beau was, no matter how much he may have deserved a belly full of lead, Fix is going to demand "justice." And he's not interested in the kind of justice that involves a judge, a trial, and a jury. Fix intends to be judge, jury, and executioner himself. Plus, when it comes to doling out punishments, Fix isn't going to stop with the person who killed his son. He's going to make the entire Black community suffer.
As if that isn't disgusting enough, you can bet your last dime that Fix has no reason to get all high and mighty and go off on innocent people, all because of some half-baked ideas about what justice is and how it gets served. If Fix is known for anything, it's for all of the hurt he's caused and all the innocent blood on his hands. Like Beulah Jackson tells Mapes in the longest—and what is probably the most powerful—chapter in A Gathering of Old Men, Fix sure did "his share of dirt" in the not-too distant past, even stooping low enough to drown two innocent little girls in the St. Charles River (9. 224).
If there's one thing that Fix represents, it's the racist terror that polices, ruins, and takes the lives of Black people in the American South. He represents an order built on hatred, fear, and brutality. But, of course, the really disgusting thing about that part of what Fix represents is that, when we say "order," we're not talking about one twisted racist's idea of what order is. We're talking about the way an entire society is organized, a way of life built around racist hate.
And the sad fact of the matter is that you can't have a society that functions that way without a lot of people having the same bigoted ideas. Gaines shows us this when we're hanging out with Tee Jack and his buddy Robert Jarreau (another Cajun). "Boy, boy, boy we haven't had a good stringing in these parts in quite a while," Jack tells Robert happily. "We'll have one now," he goes on as if he's a kid on Christmas Eve thinking of all the presents he's about to get, "if you know Fix" (13.27).
Like a couple of flesh-hungry ghouls or sharks who smell blood in the water, Jack and Robert are actually excited by the idea of some poor African American person getting lynched. If that turns your stomach, it absolutely should—because Gaines wants it to. Gaines is also going to show us that the order that Fix represents doesn't always have to be the way things are. Fix does decide not to go riding with his old crew and seek revenge, after all. But Gaines is also makes it super-clear that changing things for the better won't be easy—just like it wasn't easy for Gil to talk his dad out of possibly murdering some innocent people just because of their skin color.
It's a safe bet that, if anybody's buddy-buddy with old Fix Boutan, that person is bad news, and Luke Will has "bad news" written all over him. Sure, he might not seem like much at first, especially when Sully describes him to us in Chapter 12. "He was one of those big, hulking, beer-belly red-necks. He had long brown hair," Sully tells us, "and when he grinned from the side of his mouth, I could see that some of his teeth were missing" (12.116). In Sully's eyes, Luke seems kind of pathetic and stupid, but definitely not scary. You have to remember, though, that Sully is an outsider. He might know Gil's daddy, but he doesn't know Luke Will, or what kind of damage Luke can do.
Luke may be an unwashed, beer-guzzling redneck with bad personal hygiene habits and a serious need for a trip to the dentist, but he's also downright scary, in part because Fix Boutan isn't the only awful monster of a friend that Luke has. This guy is connected to some seriously screwed up people. And we're not just talking about his pals Alcee, Henry, Leroy, and Sharp. Gaines though, wants us to try and put two and two together for ourselves when it comes to figuring out just who Luke's keeping company with. Take a gander at this exchange that takes place between Russell and Luke at the Boutan place:
"Don't y'all listen to Luke Will," Russ said. Russ had been standing next to me, and had been quiet all the time. "Don't listen to him. All he and that gang want are trouble."
"What gang's that, Russel?" Luke Will asked.
"You know what gang," Russ said, still looking at Fix.
"Scared to call their names?" Luke Will asked him. He grinned, a real mean grin, the kind of grin that comes from just the corner of the mouth.
"Everyone in here know who I'm talking about," Russ said, still looking at Fix.(12.104-108)
Now stop and think for just a minute. Luke's buddies are no Boy Scouts, but everybody knows who his pals are. Add this to the fact that, even though Luke is dead and gone by the time the novel's over, it's the KKK who front the cash for a lawyer to defend his friends. It's pretty easy to see that the "gang" Russ is talking about refers to the gang of white men who belong to the Ku Klux Klan (20.1), an organized hate group that is officially recognized as a terrorist organization.
As if all of this isn't horrendous enough on its own—and it is—Luke Will and his buds pop up like a really nasty surprise more than halfway through Gaines's novel. Like all of the other characters, here we've been so worried about Fix that we almost feel like we can breathe a huge sigh of relief once Fix says he's not going to do what everybody else thought he was going to do. And then Luke Will shows up.
The reason? Racism is a nasty thing, and it's not something that only existed at a certain time and in a certain place. Racism still exists in the present, or at least that's what Gaines wants to make sure we understand. And, like Luke Will, its effects are still just as deadly. Also like Luke Will, racism isn't going to disappear without a fight.