Sunday, September 25, 2011

On A Gathering of Old Men


If I had to sum up A Gathering of Old Men in 65 words or less, I’d say: Charming, seemingly simple, straight forward, unflinching, direct language used to describe, relate, show, tell, lead and allow readers to glimpse racism through the eyes, hearts and souls of fifteen narrators struggling to escape a point in time that so happens to be in Louisiana in the 70’s but is so widespread as to have been almost any where decades, years, months or weeks before.
Several things strike me as being notable about Gaines’ A Gathering of Old Men, mainly the narration, the dialogue, and the subject. A few weeks ago, a classmate mentioned they felt writers cheated by writing about emotionally charged issues like racism, but I have to disagree. Topics like racism have been written about from almost every imaginable angle in both fiction and nonfiction so the idea is not necessarily to right a wrong or write a wrong; but to make people care, to touch them so that they can learn something from it, feel something from it: that’s writing, and with A Gathering of Old Men, Gaines has done it. I have to admit being intrigued by the subject matter made me eager to read the book; racism and oppression always stir emotions in me so I expected the book to be easy enough to read through. Yet I wasn’t quite planted in the book from page one. There were a lot of characters for me to get to know and not a lot of time to get to know them, the rhythm of the book, perhaps helped by the short chapters, simple (yet complex to duplicate) dialect and short sentences with very little poetic imagery and even less metaphor kept me whirling and interested, but not emotionally vested.

That came much later.
The way Gaines presents characters is astounding. Take Janey, when I meet her through Snookum and Miss Merle, one of the first things I know about her is that she has pride in her work, “But I knowed Janey woula killed me if she even thought I was thining ‘bout coming in that yard,” (p.8) I know this because Snookum tells me and because Gaines shows Jack and Bea as being removed from the present, would they know if Snookum was in the yard? She also has respect for other people and their titles and expects children to be respectful: she expects Snookum to call Candy, Miss Candy and Lou, Mr. Lou. This is a bit sketchier than it appears on the surface. As I am writing I find myself wondering if she doesn’t correct Snookum when he says Mathu and Beau because they are black and Cajun or because she is in shock, and her composition is rapidly deteriorating. Through her own eyes I learn that she is spiritual or at least that she calls on the Lord an awful lot in times of trouble, and I didn’t get the impression that those are the only times he hears from her. I also learn that she is persistent and responsible, at any moment she could have stopped trying to call Lou and Miss Merle, but she doesn’t give up. Despite the strength of her religion, Miss Merle shows Janey’s faith as faltering when she orders her to give her the names of people who don’t like Fix, but to me that also shows her intelligence. She knows she can trust Miss Merle, but she knows her well enough to know that trust has a point.
I learn much more about Janey and the other characters through their eyes and through the eyes of the characters around them but more importantly I learn a lot about them from what they don’t see, and that’s when I learn to care about them: after knowing their wants and needs, their limitations and dreams, their mannerisms and actions, all of a sudden and all at once I know them. Gaines shows characters through their dialogue, their motivations (not just motives), through their triumphs and losses, revealing them from the inside out and thus humanizing them, planting them firmly in their world.
I was interested in the subject matter from page one, but I cared about the characters from page 29, while watching Mat and Chimley decide to risk life for the possibility of LIFE, and I cared not just for the overall outcome of the story but for the outcome of each character. I imagine Gaines has a chart listing each character with their wants, needs, motivations, desires, history, skin color, tragedies and triumphs so that at any point I believe he knows more than he is sharing with the readers, as if there is more behind the curtain, and as a reader I appreciate that and as a writer I strive for it. I realize a story flows more fluidly when I know more about my characters, when I take time to chart their motivations, I have their guidelines and I can place them in situations and have them act based on their character, or in spite of it. I realize I need to work on distinguishing my characters from one another, as Gaines does, with dialogue, tone and attitude. I want to create stories people can care about, can get vested in and a good place to start will be my chart of characteristics. The first step for building a believable character, is believing in them myself, from there I can take them anywhere. 

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