Unlike The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman with its epic sweep, A Gathering of Old Men limits its primary action to a single day and to locales in and around the plantation quarters near Bayonne. It is only in Lou Dimes’s last narrative, a sort of epilogue, that the reader is carried past the climactic day on which a group of old black men gather to protect their friend, Mathu. They assume that Mathu has killed Beau, a white farmer and son of a powerful Cajun patriarch, Fix Bouton.
The old men congregate at Mathu’s house, each carrying a shotgun and confessing to the crime. They have an ally in a young white woman, Candy, who has prompted the gathering. She also claims to have shot Beau, fearing that Beau’s killer, once identified, will face brutal retribution. The men hold to their charade, braving the abuse of Sheriff Mapes and frustrating all of his attempts to intimidate them. Although he believes that only Mathu is capable of the act, Mapes slowly gains grudging respect for the men because they have dared to defy him.
Candy, too, must face the implications of the men’s stand. As her friend Lou Dimes tells her, Mathu is now free of her, free of her protection, which, however well intentioned, in its way has been as demeaning for black people as the brutal intimidation of men such as Mapes and Beau. The black men are finally able to stand alone, with dignity and pride, beholden to nobody.
Complications in the novel introduce two other white men with sharply contrasting attitudes about what should be done to avenge the death of Beau. Gil Bouton, brother of the victim and a star football player at Louisiana State University, counsels restraint; Luke Will, an ignorant redneck, tries to flame bigotry into action against the old men. Although Fix is chagrined by his son’s views, he declines to act. Disgusted, Luke leads a party of his friends to the quarters in an attempt to force Mapes into handing Mathu over to them. Mapes is wounded in the ensuing gunfight, and Luke and Charlie Biggs, who actually shot Beau, are both killed, ending the crisis.
The novel is narrated from the viewpoints of fifteen different characters, including several of the old men, whose accounts are full of good-natured ribbing in an engaging folk idiom. These men, with memorable nicknames such as Cherry, Dirty Red, Chimley, and Rooster, lend broad humor to the novel, so that its grim events, even the gunfight, have a seriocomic cast. That humor, at times self-deprecating, simply counterpoints their increasing sense of pride, for at the end they clearly stand triumphant, taller than they ever had before.
The story of A Gathering of Old Men is told by fifteen narrators. Violence is part of the story they tell. The book, however, is also a story of the sometimes painful and uncertain processes of change and growth.
Beau Boutan, a brutal Cajun farmer, has been shot and killed. His body lies in the yard of Mathu, and, because old Mathu is known as the only black man in the area who has ever stood up to the whites, most people will surely conclude that he is the killer. He faces both the retribution of the law and the revenge of the Boutan family. Fix Boutan, the patriarch of the family, has lived by a harsh, simple, and brutally racist code. The death of his son at the hands of a black man will certainly lead him to demand more than an eye for an eye.
Candy Marshall, who was half reared by Mathu, is determined to protect him. She is prepared to say that she, a white woman from a plantation-owning family, killed Beau—and she has a plan.
At Candy’s urging, the old men of the plantation will gather at Mathu’s. Each will carry a shotgun and shells like those that killed Beau. Each will have recently fired the shotgun. And each, like Candy, will claim to be Beau’s killer.
As the men move toward Mathu’s, singly, in pairs, eventually as a group, they begin to feel a sense of joyful resolution. All of their lives, they have given in. They have lived in fear of...
(The entire section is 2,735 words.)