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Fool on the Hill
Matt Ruff
Grove/Atlantic Books, 400 pages

Fool on the Hill
Matt Ruff
Matt Ruff's second book was Sewer, Gas & Electric. He lives in Philadelphia.

ISFDB Bibliography
Review: Sewer, Gas & Electric

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

Matt Ruff's first novel, Fool on the Hill, written when he was just 23, has recently been reissued in paperback, no doubt to satisfy readers such as myself who upon finishing Sewer, Gas and Electric rushed out to their local bookstore to get more of this guy. While the earlier novel is not quite as polished or as funny as Sewer, Gas and Electric, it's still a trip worth taking.

I'm told that Fool on the Hill is something of a cult classic among college students, and it's not hard to figure out why. Ruff ponders the BIG ISSUES -- i.e. the meaning (or meaninglessness) of life and love -- in an accessible, light-hearted way that undergraduates with pretensions of being hip will gladly prefer over Moby Dick. It's particularly relevant to student nerds because it takes place on a college campus -- Cornell -- with a plot that pits social misfits against dumb frat guys and various other meanies in a battle of good over evil (guess who wins). In my own college days, you were cool if you read Vonnegut; I don't know what this says about the zeitgeist of the upcoming generation, but Ruff is a better, more optimistic writer with a finer sense of narrative.

English majors will have a field day with the explicit symbolism in this book, which is both a source of its amusement and annoyance. Cornell is located in Ithaca, NY, a reference of course to the fabled home of Odysseus, so, not surprisingly, several journeys take place. As in Sewer, Gas and Electric, there are a variety of seemingly disparate characters who come together in a potentially catastrophic clash that turns out all right in the end. These include the Bohemians (a loose affiliation of graduating seniors who more than live up their namesake), sprites (as in little invisible fairies, but lacking wings and therefore having to rely upon model airplanes and boats to get about), and dogs and cats (who communicate telepathically). The Fool is the adult figure, a Cornell writer-in-residence (and maybe Ruff's alter ego?) named Stephen Titus George. Give yourself extra points if you've derived "St. George" from the character's initials and that you might expect a battle with a dragon (in fact there are two). Then there are the loves of George's life, Calliope (the Greek Muse of poetry) and Aurora Borealis Smith (a student going out with a pompous fundamentalist Christian who becomes George's guiding light). The plot hinges on the opening of a Pandora's Box, unleashing the evil Rasferret to seek revenge against the sprites who imprisoned him. This rodent creature (which you might suspect is an allusion to the rat bad guys of Redwall, except the novel was originally published at about the same time as Brian Jacques's first book in the series) is also capable of animating mannequins and tractor trailers to wreak havoc upon the humans, culminating in the final duel on the Hill. Whew!

Presiding over the fates of this improbable collection is Mr. Sunshine, some sort of Greek god who metaphysically outlines, without ever fully writing out the details, how their respective stories will unfold. Aha, you say! A theological proposition that humanity has free will to act in a universe in which God sets the parameters, but not the specifics, thus allowing for the existence of evil. And, at the same time, a meta-fictional reference to the omniscient narrator and the art of storytelling. A bit obvious, isn't it? And what's the significance of calling this character "Mr. Sunshine"? That everything turns out all right in the end? Sounds a bit lame to me.

Indeed, while Ruff manages to hammer all these implausible materials into an engaging plot structure, at times the workmanship isn't always first-rate. For example, several of his sprites have Shakespearean names. But what's the point? Hamlet has nothing in common with his namesake except that it provides for a chapter called "Hamlet Sees a Ghost." Similarly, Laertes has a sister who dies, but this time she is murdered, and there's no subsequent revenge scene. As for Puck, the hero sprite, I don't see what he has in common with the Robin Goodfellow of Midsummer's Night Dream.

Ruff seems to know this, as he provides an explanation of these sophomoric literary references in a scene where Aurora asks George why she is telling him about the novelist/songwriter and former Cornell student Richard Fariña:

"So how is [Fariña] possibly relevant to our situation?"
"Well, it isn't," George said..."But it's bad luck to pass up any chance at a literary reference."
That said, there are some wonderful pieces for the literary in-crowd, a cult book in praise of other cult authors. My favorite is the showdown between the police and a doctoral physics student who seems to be threatening to blow himself up:
"...[W]hat's that thing you're holding?"
"...It's a lightning rod." He shook the satchel. "I'm a seller of lightning rods."
"Oh, Je-sus," cried the police psychologist. "He's read Bradbury! I hate it when they've read Bradbury!"
There's also a mysterious fraternity called the Tolkien House, which quite literally recreates Middle-Earth. Here I have to agree with Ruff when he says in his author's note that, " might be nice to find a real Tolkien House out there somewhere."

While Sewer, Gas and Electric has the trappings of an SF novel, though the science fictional devices are incidental, Fool on the Hill is pure fantasy. It's also not as accomplished, so if you've never read Ruff, I'd recommend starting with the second book. But definitely check out the earlier work.

It will be real interesting to see how Ruff further matures in his next work; unfortunately, taking two years to write the first and four to complete the second, the wait might be long. But I suspect it will be well worth it.

Copyright © 1998 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

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