‘‘Stones in My Passway, Hellhound on My Trail,’’ one of the collected pieces in T. Coraghessan Boyle’s Greasy Lake and Other Stories (1985), has been singled out as one of his best stories. It centers on a blues musician named Robert, a fictionalized version of the famous blues artist Robert Johnson, during the final night of his life. The tale incorporates the myth that surrounded Johnson’s life: the story that has been passed down for generations is that Johnson sold his soul to the devil so that he could play the blues better than anyone else. Robert does, in fact, play better than anyone else does, but by the end of the story his talent cannot save him from his fate. Boyle weaves an intricate and lyrical portrait of the artist’s last hours with glimpses of his troubled past. This well-crafted story explores questions of determinism, free will, and choices and their consequences as it traces one man’s inability to clear the stones from his passway or shake the hellhound from his trail.
Part 1 Summary
Boyle prefaces ‘‘Stones in My Passway, Hellhound on My Trail’’ with an excerpt from a song titled ‘‘Stones in My Passway’’ by blues composer and singer Robert Johnson. The story opens with the main character, identified only as ‘‘Robert,’’ playing blues at the House Party Club in Dallas on a Saturday night. ‘‘His voice rides up to a reedy falsetto that gets the men hooting and then down to the cavernous growl that chills the women.’’ The club, ‘‘dingy and brown’’ with cigarette smoke, is full of working class black men and women, drinking and dancing the evening away. The men concentrate on Robert’s intricate picking while the women ‘‘look into his eyes.’’ It is 1938, moving toward the end of the depression and the beginning of World War II, but Robert seems oblivious to anything but his music. He has not eaten in two days.
The narrative flashes back to an incident when Robert was fifteen involving a poisoned dog. While working out in the field one day, someone shouted that a dog named Loup had gone mad. They all ran to watch the frenzied dog ‘‘howling death until the day was filled with it, their ears and the pits of their stomachs soured with it.’’ Crazed with pain, the dog began to dig at his poisoned belly until it opened, spilling intestines on the ground. Then one of the men killed it with a shovel blow to the head to end its suffering. Afterward, Robert came close to take in every detail of death amid ‘‘the litter of bottles and cans and rusted machinery.’’
Back in the present of the club, between sets, Robert goes out back with a girl named Beatrice under Ida Mae Doss’ disapproving stare. Ida Mae is the proprietor’s daughter and cooks for the club’s patrons. When he comes back to the stage, he feels Ida Mae’s ‘‘cold, hard,’’ razor sharp eyes on him, and he sheepishly shrugs as if to say that he cannot help himself. Beatrice then ‘‘steams in’’ and requests Robert play ‘‘something sweet,’’ and Robert begins to play ‘‘Phonograph Blues,’’ a song that suggests the singer is sexually worn out. As Ida Mae continues to ‘‘look daggers,’’ Beatrice moves to the center of the floor and dances seductively to the music.
Part 2 Summary
The narrative at this point flashes back to when Robert was a teenager and was beginning his career as a blues musician. The narrator notes that no one is really sure when exactly Robert started playing. He left his job as a field laborer when he was sixteen, and a year and a half later he walked into the Rooster Club in Mississippi with a new guitar and listened to Walter Satter’s performance. After Satter finished playing, Robert approached him and asked if he could sit in on the performer’s next set. Robert’s guitar work so dazzled Satter that the man stayed on stage with him for only a short while before he stepped down and let the younger man play on his own.
Back at the House Party Club, the evening...
(The entire section is 1,094 words.)