Reverse-Gentrification of the Literary World

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South of the Pumphouse


A debut novel from the art-rock pioneer and frontman of Primus, Les Claypool.

$16.95 $12.71

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Excerpt from South of the Pumphouse

Chapter 1

The Town


“That little prick,” she muttered, opening her eyes. She’d been wrestling with insomnia since her mid-fifties, and she cherished what little sleep came her way. The woman knew the local sounds of the night: cats, dogs, the occasional backfire or squealing tire of an adolescent joy ride through the neighborhood. Most nights the house was quiet except for the drip of the bathroom faucet or the random gurgles and blurps that emanated from the flatulent man who had shared her bed for the past thirty-odd years. He was a journeyman machinist on the verge of retirement. They had plans. The thirty-six-foot diesel pusher with two slide-outs that sat in the driveway was their ticket out of this blue-collar neighborhood. It had been a good place to live and grow, but lately these particular sounds in the night troubled her. These were the sounds of the old couple’s impending obsolescence, the sounds of suburban vandalism.


The chubby kid in the split-level two doors from the end of the block was using the streetlamp outside his window for wrist-rocket target practice again. He was the type of fat bastard who would thump the small kids just for the hell of it and was known to torture any neighborhood feline misfortunate enough to cross his path when he was “holding” firecrackers or other celebratory explosives.

Late that summer evening, hopped up on sour balls and Baskin-Robbins ice cream, this plump youth decided that the time had finally come to get the job done right, once and for all. He’d been plinking away unsuccessfully at the streetlamp on a nightly basis since the weather had turned warm. Up until then, his only ammo had consisted exclusively of glass marbles that he’d stolen from his younger cousin. Earlier that day, however, he’d stumbled across some steel ball bearings while rummaging through an old coffee can filled with random nuts, bolts, and wood screws that he’d found in his father’s garage. Now armed with more formidable ammunition, he grabbed his trusty wrist rocket and went forth that very night to hunt and kill his shiny old foe.


“That little prick!” she repeated much louder than before, sitting up in her bed.

“What the hell, hon?”

“It’s that little prick across the street shooting his BB gun at the street light again.”

“It’s not a BB gun.” The words were muttered in a groggy fog. “It’s a wrist rocket.”


“Slingshot, hon.”


“That little prick! I’m gonna call a cop,” she said, leaping up to look out the window.

“He’s just a kid horsin’ around. Leave him be.”

THWAP. CHINK-A-POP, followed by the sound of glass shards hitting the asphalt.

The woman looked out between the curtains at the newfound darkness.

“There it is. The little prick killed it,” she fumed, and shook her fists at her side. “I’m calling a cop.”

Half asleep, the old machinist responded inadvertently with a gentle fart.

The little neighborhood went unnoticed by the good folks at the city maintenance yard, as far as regular upkeep was concerned. The streetlamp, as of two years later, remained just as shattered as it had been on the night it was hunted down and executed. It wasn’t a bad area by any stretch of the imagination, but still far from the best that Contra Costa County had to offer. Twenty years earlier, it had been a good alternative to the cookie-cutter tract housing that was readily available throughout the area. Indeed, the decision to purchase—or not to purchase—a tract home was based less on personal taste than on finance in the little town of El Sobrante.

Calling it a town might have been something of an exaggeration. El Sobrante was more of an annex-village striving to be a town. It had neither a city hall nor offices, neither mayor nor city council. There was a fire station but no police department, with law-enforcement duties falling under the jurisdiction of the Contra Costa sheriff’s department. The term “semi-rural” would be fitting, if such a term actually existed. At one point, El Sobrante was known to have had more horses per capita than any other town in Contra Costa County, which was not an area known for horses. Spanish for “the surplus” or, as it was more commonly translated, “the leftovers,” El Sobrante had for many years lived up to this title.

Triangulated uncomfortably within the borders of the more industrial city of Richmond, the suburban valley town of Pinole, and the more upscale village of Orinda, El Sobrante had always been a cultural enigma. Most who moved there did so because it was cheaper than Pinole and less, for lack of a better term, “ethnic” than Richmond. In the ’70s, forced bussing of African-American kids from Richmond may have changed the complexion of the local high school, but it was at least a decade before it made much of a difference in the racial imbalance that existed in the neighborhoods. One semi-notorious account of conflict occurred when the ex-mayor of Richmond, who happened to be black, moved with his family to one of the nicer homes in El Sobrante. Shortly after settling into their new neighborhood, the family awoke one morning to find a large cross etched into their front lawn by an extra-potent mixture of fertilizer. The story earned “headlines” on the third page of the back section of the West County Times, provoking ominous whispers about a rogue element of the KKK lurking in the area, waiting for their chance to over-fertilize the lawn of anyone potentially posing a threat to the pure El Sobrante way of life.

Eventually adding to the ethnic diversification of the region was the addition of a rather large Sikh temple to the hillside overlooking the main area of commerce, known as San Pablo Dam Road. Once the “brown kids with the black hankies in their hair,” as the more outspoken citizens described them, started showing up in school and the “bearded rag heads” began running the local Pit-Stop, the more aggravated elements of bigotry tended to move northward to less Anglo, heritage-threatening regions such as Solano and Lake counties.

As the decades passed, cultural change found its way into the neighborhoods of El Sobrante, but in 1995, the defining elements of typical blue-collar, white suburbia still remained.

On the aforementioned darkened corner, next door to the retired machinist and beneath the long delinquent streetlamp, stood a modest two-bedroom, channel-ply sided, tar-and-gravel, flat-roofed house. It belonged to Earl Paxton, a man who proudly called himself an “El Sobrantian.”

It was the wee hours of the morning, and Earl was once again about to watch the sunrise—but not without a slight feeling of discomfort. While seeing the sun come up may be a wondrous sight for many, for Earl it was a reminder of days not long past when he would stay up all night polishing his ’78 Trans Am or rebuilding a carburetor or cleaning his garage. Funny thing about tweakers, they always seem to have the cleanest garages. Methamphetamine will do that to a man. Just as the impending birth of a child may instinctively prompt an expectant father to “nest,” methamphetamine—or “crank”—can also be the motivator of many an addict’s most meticulous tendencies. Though tweakers’ houses are sometimes in a state of utter disarray, the more industrious tend to have impeccably clean garages and work spaces. While this particular day’s early stirrings might have had a more innocent motivation, the fact remained that, for the first time in his short bout with sobriety, Earl had once again forgone sleep under suspicious circumstances.