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

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(Short Stories for Students)

Determinism and Free Will
In ‘‘Stones in My Passway, Hellhound on My Trail,’’ Boyle plays with the myth that when he was a young man, Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil to be able to play the blues better than anyone else. The story’s title suggests that Robert is fighting a losing battle to avoid paying the devil his due. The hellhound, Cerberus in Greek mythology who guards the gates of the underworld, chases him while stones impede his escape route. In the story, Robert’s destiny does seem predetermined, but Boyle suggests that Robert’s self-destructive tendencies, rather than the devil, are the culprits. Ever since Robert started his career as a blues performer, he has figuratively placed stones in his own path. He continually misses recording dates and performances due to his penchant for alcohol and women. While clearly no one but Robert is controlling his destiny, Boyle questions how much free will Robert has, given his obvious weaknesses.

Strength and Weakness
Robert does display strength of character with regard to his music. Without ever having made a public performance, he has the courage to come up to an established blues artist and ask him if he can sit in on one of his sets. Robert so dazzles the older man with his playing, that he walks off the stage and lets Robert take the spotlight. He has also had the perseverance to learn his craft so well that when he plays, he ‘‘gets the men hooting’’ and ‘‘chills the women.’’ His skillful playing always compels listeners to ‘‘pound over the floorboards like the start of the derby.’’

His weaknesses, however, overpower his strengths. Throughout his life, he never seems to be able to act responsibly. He appears to be oblivious to what is happening around him and concentrates only on his music and his fast-paced life style. On his last night, he has not eaten for two days.

Robert has been able to establish relationships with women, but he has never been able to sustain them. It is apparent that he had forged some kind of bond with Ida Mae because she wears his guitar pick on a silver chain around her neck and because he looks sheepishly at her after being with Beatrice. Yet he does not have the strength to resist his desire to live constantly in the moment, without any regard for the consequences of his actions.

Choice and Consequences
When Robert’s weaknesses prompt him to make the wrong choices, he must suffer the consequences. When he gets involved in fights, usually over a woman, he lands in jail. His final choice, to go out in back of the House Party Club with...

(The entire section is 683 words.)