Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Review of South of the Pumphouse by Les Claypool

Primus was one of the first bands I picked up as a young teenager looking to find music beyond the radio.  And I’ve stuck with them since.  To say the band are ‘unique’ is only to scratch the surface.  A cross of Frank Zappa, Pink Floyd, The Meters, and something only Primus brings to the table, bizarro funkonautics hits a little closer to home—but still does not quantify.  While Larry Lelonde and Tim Alexander (and the various other talents which have been with the group over time) are singular in their own right, few would argue Les Claypool is not the driving force behind the band.  Leading the trio, working on solo projects, and collaborating with a number of other musicians, the man has a creativity at work which seems unstoppable.  In 2006 Claypool looked to extend his ripe imagination into the land of fiction, South of the Pumphouse the result.

One of the ongoing motifs in Primus’ music is fishing.  From “John the Fisherman” to “Fish On”, “The Ol’ Diamond Back Sturgeon” to “The Last Salmon Man”, Les and crew have regularly sung about their hobby.  Naturally, South of the Pumphouse is a tale about a couple guys plying the waters of San Francisco’s San Pablo Bay for the grand daddy of all sturgeons.  Two brothers, Earl from back woods California and Ed the younger brother who moved from the countryside to be in the big city, decide to go on a day-long fishing trip in the wake of their father’s death.  The reunion going well as the brothers drive to the Bay, buy bait, and prepare to launch the boat, things change when Earl’s friend Donny shows up to join them.  Donny a fun-loving, redneck extraordinaire, the fishing trip initially goes smoothly with joking and laughter, each party indulging in their drug of choice.  But as the day stretches long and the personalities begin to clash in the tight confines of the boat, things take a turn.

Knowing what I know about Primus and Claypool himself, South of the Pumphouse is classic material.  The monster fish that listeners learned of in “The Ol’ Diamondback Sturgeon” haunts the waters, just as a Hunter S. Thompson-esque mood saturates the trio’s drug-hazed attempts at fishing, conversation, and generally wasting time on the open water.  Claypool has long been that oddball combination of redneck and counter-culture hippie, and it shows.  His personality seemingly split across the three characters, the only things missing are the surreal costumes and stage props one finds at a Primus show.

For as much practice Claypool has writing song lyrics, prose fiction proves a different beast (sturgeon?).  The verbiage bare bones and loose, a tighter package could have been achieved with a bit more spit and polish.  Claypool shines in capturing the idiosyncracies of small town California (the dialogue leading to the climax of the novel is intense) and does a reasonably good job capturing the story’s underlying menace early in the novel.  But overall, the attention to detail on a line by line basis is slack.

In the end, South of the Pumphouse is novel that works from a simple premise (three men on a fishing trip), effects a full-on Primus motif (drugs, lurking sturgeons, and quirky characters), and delivers a narrative that begins quite quotidian but slowly escalates and twists into a truly surprising plot that is all “My Name Is Mud”.  Not airtight prosaically, it nevertheless comes recommended, foremost to fans of Claypool’s music, but also to anyone interested in a story about drug-infused fishing turned upside down.


  1. A very astute assessment of the novel. I read it nine years ago, in the wake of my own father's death. Were there traces of Bradbury in there too? Or maybe I just wanted to read those into the novel.
    Obviously, we not only share a taste for the same kind of books, but also the same kind of music.

    1. Yeah, Primus rocks. :)

      Hints of Bradbury? In the opening few chapters, the quotidian edge to what later becomes... more than quotidian, maybe. I didn't think about it before, but there is an argument to be made...