A Gathering of Old Men
© 1983 Ernest Gaines
There’s a white man dead in the quarter, and by sundown there may be another body swinging from the trees. Most of the people in the quarter don’t know why Beau Bauton is lying shot on the ground, but they know there will be reprisal — rage-filled and wrathful violence, blood shed for blood. In a scurry of shouting and running, a plan forms….and when Sheriff Mapes arrives to investigate the murder, he finds a crowd of old men, each carrying a 12 gauge shotgun with an empty #5 shell. The unique standoff draws on decades of warped relationships between white and black, rich and poor, law and community, to turn a day-long staring contest into a short novel riven in tension.
I’ve read three of Gaines’ works before, and each has been a unique experience. A Gathering of Old Men hops from character to character with each chapter, building a full experience of the day through different perspectives: the confusion and terror of a child who doesn’t know what’s going on, but knows it’s bad, and the steady resolve of old men who have been frightened, but who aren’t any more. Every man who gathers there has his own motives for standing: two men fishing are there because they’re ashamed to have never resisted before; another has burned in quiet indignation ever since he came home from the war and was abused for wearing the uniform, as if he was bragging that he’d once killed white men. Others are there because they’d be thought less of if they weren’t. Regardless of their motives, this simple act of solidarity and resistance changes the old script, and a sheriff who wants to be done with this nonsense and go fishing is put into a difficult place. If he brings in the man he ‘knows’ shot Beau, the rest will follow, and there will be a race riot in Bayonne. If he doesn’t do anything, though, the man’s family will come and exercise vengeance. Either way, it’s not a good look for law and order.
For all its brevity, the world of Gathering of Old Men is a complex one. There’s history in the relationships, more than the reader has time to untangle, connections that the story doesn’t dwell but which are important for how the characters respond to one another. Mapes and his suspect Mathu, for instance, have a history together: they’re both looked down on by the Cajuns, and while Mapes may throw his weight around and abuse the other blacks, he knows Mathu to be a man who stand up for himself, and even admires him and enjoys his company. This history, and learning it through witnessing individual interactions, makes it hard for the reader to write off characters: even the dreaded Fix, the churlish master of the Bauton clan who could turn Marshall into a nighmare with a word, proves to be more complicated when we meet him in turn. Having come to Gaines through Wendell Berry, I saw in this novel a lot of resonance with Berry’s own work, with a common theme of the collapse of traditional communities: one of the grievances the black community at the Marshall plantation has with the Bautons (who are new to the area) is that they’ve been steadily buying up parts of the plantation holdings, modernizing them, and pushing out the tenants who worked that land for centuries. The march of the tractor is plowing over them, and removing their history from the land: even their graves are not safe.
With each novel, Gaines surprises me. A Gathering of Old Men is easily my favorite of the three I’ve yet experienced, because he packs such tension and complex background goings-on into a shorter story. His characters, black and white, are moving in their moral quandaries, and unforgettable in the stands they take. Superb.