Pumpjack Book Reviews

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Cruelty, sex and debauchery, and the search for meaning

The Road to Darkness by Paul Leppin is an odd and disturbing little book that illuminates existential angst as distorted through a sexual lens. There are two novellas. The first, Daniel Jesus, is about (in his words) a hunchbacked dwarf whose immense wealth allows him to seek out experiences to rouse him out of his crippling ennui. Naturally, the only experiences up to the task involve cruelty, sex and debauchery. There’s also a dark, fiery theme of counter-religion (Madonna/whore concepts, perverse rituals, purity themes, etc.) just to complicate things.

The second novella, a two-parter, is Severin’s Road to Darkness. Severin is (compared to a Daniel Jesus) a relatively normal young man gripped by relatively normal ennui. Rather than embracing the darkness, he runs from it, bounding from lover to lover — and hurting each cruelly but mostly unintentionally, and ultimately due to his own weaknesses — to avoid facing his personal existential terror. He also flirts with suicide, kills a pet raven and fathers at least one child whom he abandons.

This book is a tough read but he does an exquisite job of capturing the mood (not sure if it was real, of course) of a dark and decadent pre-World War One Prague and of tapping into the often paralyzing angst of modern existence.

“Her love was blown away like dandelion seeds in the later-summer storms. But it left the poison of sadness in her soul, that great, never-ending sadness which only comes once in our lives, when our best days are gone, never to return.”

“The monotonous sameness of the days made his hands tremble. A leaden weariness gnawed at his temples and he pressed his eyeballs back into his skull until they hurt.”

“Since he had grown up and begun to earn his living, blank, bare walls had risen around him, blocking his view. Everywhere he looked he was surrounded by the stupefying routine of the everyday world.”

It’s a challenging book, and not for everyone, (“Anton, your wife is in the Villa Jesus, in bed with the rich humpback, kissing his hump as it were a crucifix.”), but it serves as a reminder (occasionally perverse) that the search for meaning, for experiences that jolt us out of our resting doldrums, is a constant in the human experience. And not even wicked orgies can ever completely fill that emptiness.