Stones in My Passway, Hellhound on My Trail by T. Coraghessan Boyle

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The Role of the Story's Structure

(Short Stories for Students)

Traditionally, literary works focus on a main character who is presented with a problem to solve. This problem centers on one or more conflicts that occur between the main character and another person, an act of nature, a social institution, or the character him/herself. Authors typically subject their characters to experiences in which they gain knowledge about themselves and the world around them and then, in turn, use that information to resolve the conflicts in their lives. Often a character will gain this knowledge through an epiphany, a moment of revelation when a certain truth is immediately understood. The epiphany may come too late to save the protagonist, but he or she will have at least come to an understanding of their personal tragedy.

Some contemporary writers, however, like Tom Robbins, Thomas Pynchon, and John Barth, have challenged this traditional structure in their work. These writers, often called postmodernists, reject the notion that experience always presents itself in a way that we can understand, accept, and then act upon. T. Coraghessan Boyle has also been included in this group of writers. Scholars have noted that often Boyle’s characters find themselves in positions where they could gain a better understanding of themselves and their world; however, they often miss or ignore the opportunity to do so.

Maril Nowak, in her article on Boyle for Contemporary Popular Writers, notes that Boyle’s main characters, always male, are ‘‘awash in American humor’s traditions—brawn, bravado, and ineptitude’’ and ‘‘sideslip every chance to be a hero.’’ They sideslip their chances because they are unable to recognize or to understand crucial elements of their experiences and to learn from them.

One such character appears in Boyle’s critically acclaimed short story, ‘‘Stones in My Passway, Hellhound on My Trail.’’ In this piece, Boyle’s main character Robert, an accomplished blues musician, fumbles the opportunity to gain knowledge about himself and his world and, as a result, is destroyed. Boyle’s innovative narrative structure highlights his focus in this story on the stones we often find in our path to self-knowledge.

Boyle effectively weaves together myth, biography, and historical reality to highlight Robert’s problematic experiences and the difficulty he has in learning from them. He introduces myth and biography in the story’s title, alluding to the tale passed down through the generations that one dark night when Robert Johnson found himself at a crossroads in the heart of the Delta, he made a pact with the devil. He agreed to give up his soul for the ability to play the blues better than anyone ever had or ever would. Boyle suggests that Robert is a fictionalized version of Robert Johnson by opening the story with an excerpt from Johnson’s song, ‘‘Stones in My Passway,’’ and by patterning much of his character’s life after the blues singer’s.

Boyle’s humanization of this myth provides one possible reason for Robert’s tragic end. The title, which Boyle has cobbled together from two of Johnson’s songs, suggests that Robert’s life has been determined by an outside force and thus that he should not be held accountable for his actions or for his ultimate destruction. When the narrator later admits that ‘‘no one knows how Robert got his guitar,’’ Boyle reinforces the sense of myth, implying that there might have actually been a hellhound chasing him while the devil placed stones in his passway. Yet Boyle’s intricate weaving of historical and personal reality proposes an alternate, more logical hypothesis: Robert’s own actions coupled with his inability to understand or accept the consequences destroy him. Boyle’s inclusion of myth serves to point out how theories of determinism can be used erroneously to excuse an avoidance of responsibility.

Nowak points out that Boyle’s characters ‘‘seem always to be backing toward the crumbling cliff,...

(The entire section is 5,429 words.)