Les Claypool is known primarily as one of the most innovative rock bass players of all time. But any major fan of his work with Primus and other groups is likely to tell you that his song lyrics have also been a huge draw over the years. Sometimes obscure, often creepy, Claypool's distinctive lyrics are what make it a little less surprising that he published a novel in 2006. The surprising thing about "South of the Pumphouse" is that it's a minor delight.
And I don't lament the fact that the book isn't a masterpiece. I'd have to hate Mr. Claypool a little if it had turned out he was not only a wizard bassist but also a kind of latter-day Dickens, but still, "Pumphouse" is a damn strong debut novel. If you're looking for a comparison, the one that comes to mind is Charles Higson. Higson, better known in the UK than the States, is a more skillful writer than Claypool, but they both share a playful fascination with absurd violence and down-and-out characters. (I'm thinking back to Higson's horrific adult novels from the '90s, not his current "Young Bond" books.) If a few awkward POV shifts don't bother you much, you'll laugh your way through half of "Pumphouse" and cringe (in a good way) through the rest—even if you see the ending coming from a quarter mile away.
It may be worth noting that there isn't a rock-and-roll musician to be found in the book, either. One of my fears going in was that it would be a behind-the-scenes rock novel. Nope. Claypool's passion for angling is evident on almost every page—which is copasetic—but his tenure in the music industry keeps itself largely hidden, and he proves to be a writer truly curious about life and about people, a writer very interested in producing a lump of fear and revulsion in his reader's belly. I'll be damned if I wasn't left hoping he has more novels in him.
But why take my word for it? Read an excerpt from the Web site of his publisher, Akashic Books.—Pete Mesling