A GATHERING OF OLD MEN by Ernest J. Gaines
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In the first half of this short novel, Gaines (Catherine Carmier, Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman) makes something poetic out of a melodramatic moment in Southern race relations; in the second half the melodrama more or less takes over, as does a slightly muddled web of themes. Candy Marshall, 30-year-old heir to the rundown Marshall place in 1970s Louisiana farm-country, discovers the dead body of neighboring Cajun farmer Beau Boutan--and standing nearby with a gun in his hands is old Mathu, the proud black family-retainer who raised Candy, and her Daddy before her. Determined to protect Mathu, Candy quickly announces that she shot Beau; furthermore, Candy sends out the word that all the old black men in the area should join her at the murder-site, bringing shotguns identical to Mathu's. So, as the dialect-wise narration shifts from voice to voice around the neighborhood, a dozen old men respond to Candy's call--fearful, eager, skeptical: ""We wait till now? Now, when we're old men, we get to be brave?"" They gather near Beau's body, each of them (as well as Mathu and Candy) confessing to the killing, with their proclaimed motives becoming a whimsical yet powerful litany of longstanding grievances. (One old man says he did it because of the overgrown, neglected black cemetery: ""I did it for every last one back there under them trees. And I did it for every four-o'-clock, every rosebush, every palm-of-Christian ever growed on this place."") And they stubbornly, effectively stand up to the rough, savvy local sheriff--while they all wait for the inevitable arrival of the much-feared Fix, Bean's Klan-ish father. Then, however, as the novel slips from fable-like intensity to more conventional storytelling, there are a series of plot-turns, each reflecting an aspect of the South-in-transition: Fix will wearily decide not to play vigilante (two of his sons, for largely selfish reasons, argue that lynching days are over); Mathu will reject Candy's paternalistic protection; the real killer will surface, brave enough to confess as well as to fight back against white abuse; and when local rednecks demand instant justice, the redneck sheriff will oppose them--with death coming to the most violent men on both sides in the shootout that follows. As usual, Gaines offers spare atmosphere, keen-eared dialogue, and quietly taut confrontations. But the novel's second half tries to compress too much socio-symbolic action into a small-scale story; and it's the book's simple, eloquent, inspired opening that stays--hauntingly--in the mind.

Pub Date: Sept. 29th, 1983
ISBN: 0679738908
Publisher: Knopf