Sure, we know what you might be thinking. Maybe it doesn't make any sense to you that, with forty characters to choose from, we decide to take a good long look at a character who doesn't seem to do or say nearly as much as some of the other folks we meet in Gaines's novel. In fact, the first time we see him—which is when Gaines has us hanging out with Snookum—he isn't even doing much of anything. He's just "squatting against a wall with that double-barrel shotgun in his arms" in some old, faded clothes, smoking a cigarette (1.29). You might get the feeling that, even if he is packing a shotgun, he really couldn't do much of anything to anybody. But you had better believe that you've got that dead wrong.
You see, Mathu never says much of anything because he doesn't have to. In fact, we're convinced that he chooses not to say much. Mathu isn't much for words, but that's because he's the kind of guy who's all about action. If he says he's going to do something, there's never any doubt in anybody's mind that he's going to do it. When Snookum wants to know where Charlie is after he notices Beau's dead body, Mathu isn't having any of it. "Get out of this yard," Mathu tells Snookum, "and get out fast, or I'll come out there and tear your butt with a switch" (1.34). And wouldn't you know it, Snookum tells us that he "shot out of there fast," which lets us know that he knew that Mathu meant business.
It just so happens that, years ago, Fix Boutan learned that the hard way, and everybody else who was there that day learned it, too (even if they did get off a whole lot easier than Fix). But you don't have to take our word for it, thanks to the nifty way that Gaines put his novel together. Let's take a minute to hear what Chimley has to say about a day some decades ago when Fix told Mathu to take his empty Coke bottle into a local store and get him a fresh one:
After Fix had drunk his Coke, he wanted Mathu to take the empty bottle back in the store. Mathu told him he wasn't nobody's servant. Fix told him he had to take the bottle back into the store or fight […]
When Fix told Mathu to take the bottle back in the store again, and Mathu didn't, Fix hit him—and the fight was on. Worst fight I ever seen in my life. For a hour it was toe to toe. But when it was over, Mathu was up, and Fix was down. (3.26-8)
Sure, there was some talk about lynching Mathu after that, but it didn't happen. On top of that, the former sheriff may have sucker-punched Mathu to make the white folks feel better, but he socked Fix, too. More importantly, as Chimley reminds us, Mathu was "the only one [...] ever stood up" to Fix or anybody else, no matter what their skin color was.
But that's not to say that Mathu's words also don't pack a wallop. Just think about when Charlie's giving the men who've gathered at Mathu's place the skinny about what went down with Beau. When Beau's literally gunning for Charlie, or so Charlie tells us, his plan was to run, run, and keep on running until he got good and far away from Marshall. But when Charlie comes back to Mathu's place, Mathu tells him that "he had a gun there, too," and that he'd rather, as Charlie goes on: "see me laying there dead than to run from another man when I was fifty years old."
But that's not all. Charlie also tells us that he "didn't want to take the gun," but he knew that, if he didn't, Mathu was going to kill Beau and probably kill him, too (or so he tells everybody there, at least) (15.63). Mathu didn't even have to say that last part, but Charlie knew that's probably how things would go down. We personally don't think that Mathu would have offed Charlie, but this whole exchange just goes to show you that Mathu always means business, that what he says goes. And that's because Mathu has one serious reputation—and a whole lot of respect from everybody around those parts.
A lot of that respect comes from the fact that Mathu's tough as nails, but, in A Gathering of Old Men, all of that toughness gets wrapped up into a much larger package of stuff that you can think of as "manhood," "manliness," or "masculinity" (or whatever word you want to use to describe conceptions of what you should do or how you should act if you don't have two X chromosomes). But, and pretty early on besides, Gaines wants us to get that this is about more than crushing beer cans on your head or chest-bumping your bros after your favorite player scores a winning touchdown. Gaines has Rufe give us this little tidbit about Mathu a short while after Mapes shows up and starts smacking some of Mathu's pals around:
Mapes looked at him. Mapes like Mathu. They had hunted together. Wildcats, alligators, deers. They had fished together. And Mapes had had a few drinks with Mathu at Mathu's house. He liked 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 never backed down from anybody, either. Maybe that's why he liked him. To him, Mathu was a real man. The rest of us wasn't. (9.15)
Now, even if it might not look like it right away, a whole lot is going on there. From what Rufe is saying, before anything else we can figure out that Mathu's refusal to take any guff makes Mapes like and respect him. But, even more than that, it makes Mapes think of Mathu as a "man."
So, you might be thinking: of course Mathu is a man, for crying out loud. He's definitely not a woman. In the South, though, for an African American male to be considered a man, it meant something a whole lot more than what you might think it would.
You see, during the slave days—and even long after Emancipation—one of the ways that white people justified how awfully they treated Blacks was the idea that they weren't really people. At least, they didn't think that they were people in the same way as white people. Even if some whites were willing to admit that Blacks were actually human beings, the belief was that they were basically stupid, over-grown children who couldn't take care of themselves. Why? Because it helped to justify seeing Blacks as inferior and keeping them enslaved. This means that being called a "man" isn't just about meeting some lame expectations about what it is to be male. It means being treated as a human being, and as an equal.
As awesome and tough as Mathu might be, he may as well be a superhero. After all, Mathu—and this goes for all of the African American characters in the novel, but especially Mathu—is literally the reason for why Candy and her family are so rich and have all that they have. When Mathu's about to take the heat for Beau's murder, what's probably one of the most moving and powerful scenes in the novel goes down between Candy and Mathu:
Mathu had brought his hand down from her face, but she still helt his hand with both of hers.
"This is not Marshall, without you," she told him.
"I'll always be here, Candy," he said.
"This is nothing but a few miles of dirt," she said. "Weeds, trees, dirt—but this is not Marshall without you."
I'll be here," he said.
"Candy," Lou said.
"You knew the first," Candy said to Mathu. She wasn't hearing Lou at all. "You knew Grandpa Nate. The first Marshall. Remember from the war—the Civil War?"
"I remember the Colonel."
"You knew them all, Candy said. "Grew up with my grandpa. Raised my daddy. Raised me. I want you to help me with my own child one day."
"I'll be here," he said.
"Not like that," she said. "Not back there under those trees—spirit alone. I want you to hold his hand. Tell him about Grandpa. Tell him about the field. Tell him how the river looked before the cabins and wharves. No one else to tell him about these things but you."
"I'll tell him." (14.84-96)
That's some intense stuff, for sure. Not only is it a really touching moment between two characters, but just think about what Candy is saying. Without Mathu, none of this would have existed, and none of it would have mattered. In fact, she's almost saying that, if it wasn't for him, she wouldn't be where or who she was. Candy's words to Mathu are meant to show us how crucial Blacks and the work they did were to white folks in the South, in more ways than one. Without their work, there would be nothing where all those fields and big houses are.
As if that weren't enough, Mathu, like all of his friends and their families in the quarters there at Marshall, has lived and experienced decades of racist oppression—the really horrible kind of stuff that most of us have only ever read about (along with some of the maybe less horrible stuff that still goes on). A lot of times, the question gets thrown around as to just how a people who've lived under that kind of oppression can effectively fight back. Mathu, and pretty much all of A Gathering of Old Men, is partially Gaines's response to that question. They can band together, take a stand, and refuse to back down, no matter what gets thrown at them. It might mean people getting hurt. It might mean people getting killed. But there's only so much a person or group of people can take before that doesn't matter anymore.
Other times—and this is really, really, gross—some people are tempted to blame all of that suffering on the people who suffered, like it was their fault for not being able to challenge and dismantle a centuries-old racist system. That's complete garbage, and Gaines wants us to understand that. The fact that Mathu has always been around—and that he's always never been afraid to fight for respect—makes him a symbol of the ability to challenge and resist racism that's always existed among Blacks in this country. Mathu, and all of his friends, in fact, are Gaines's way of telling the younger generation not to discount or ignore the experiences and ideas of the older one, because those folks are super-important to continuing the fight for equality.