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

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Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

Robert Johnson
Robert’s life in ‘‘Stones in My Passway, Hellhound on My Trail’’ parallels that of the famous blues artist Robert Johnson. Contemporary blues artist Eric Clapton called Robert Johnson ‘‘the most important blues musician who ever lived.’’ Clapton insisted that Johnson was ‘‘true, absolutely, to his own vision,’’ and the most ‘‘deeply soulful’’ musician he had ever heard. He adds that Johnson’s music ‘‘remains the most powerful cry . . . you can find in the human voice.’’ Like the Robert in the story, Johnson became a successful recording artist. During the late 1930s, he recorded several songs for Vocalion Records.

According to historian Stephen C. LaVere, Johnson ‘‘had very little trouble making himself popular with the girls. In fact, he had more trouble keeping his hands off them.’’ LaVere suggests that Johnson’s lifestyle ‘‘eventually . . . would be his downfall.’’ The historian also notes that Johnson ‘‘couldn’t handle his liquor at all’’ and as a result would often get into fights.

Johnson died under slightly different circumstances than did his fictionalized counterpart. When he was playing at a country roadhouse called Three Forks, located deep in the Delta in Greenwood, Mississippi, Johnson started seeing the wife of the manager. One night, after he finished a set, he drank from an open bottle of beer. Shortly afterwards, he collapsed, clutching his stomach in agony. Johnson’s friends who were there that night determined that the manager had poisoned him. Johnson survived the incident; however, in his weakened condition, he contracted pneumonia and died soon after on August 16, 1938.

The Great Depression
The story is set in the deep South during the Great Depression that held America in its grips during the 1930s. The depression was a severe economic crisis that occurred in the United States after the stock market crash of 1929. The impact on Americans was staggering. In 1933, the worst year of the depression, unemployment rose to sixteen million people, about one third of the available labor force. During the early years, men and women searched eagerly and diligently for any type of work. However, after several months of finding no sustained employment, they became discouraged and often gave up. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal policies, which offered the country substantial economic relief, helped mitigate the effects of the depression, but the recovery was not complete until the government channeled money into the war effort in the early 1940s.

Dust Bowl
During the 1930s, parts of the United States’ prairie states were struck with severe dust storms that smothered crops and injured the health of those who lived on the land. The most devastating effect was the blowing away of topsoil, crucial for the farming industry. The Dust Bowl resulted from the severe overuse of the land.

The depression and the Dust Bowl serve as the backdrop for ‘‘Stones in My Passway, Hellhound on My Trail.’’ Although Robert seems oblivious to his surroundings, Boyle’s inclusion of this historical context could suggest that Robert’s self-destructive behavior is a result of his desire to escape the reality of his historical moment.

Literary Style

(Short Stories for Students)

Boyle rejects a traditional chronological structure for a more fragmented form that juxtaposes vignettes from Robert’s past with the story of Robert’s present to illustrate his self-destructive lifestyle. This structure also suggests the inevitability of Robert’s death at the end of the story.

Boyle uses foreshadowing to hint at what will happen to Robert on his last night at the House Party Club. Near the beginning of the story, the narrator goes back into the past to the time when Robert was fifteen, and he watched a poisoned dog named Loup die. Loup suffered a slow, agonizing death, as he tore at his cramped stomach until his intestines spilled out onto the ground. Boyle uses the...

(The entire section is 1,214 words.)