I've been meaning to write about books ever since stumbling across Node Your Library, but it wasn't till after I'd moved out of school and shuffled through my collection that I knew which ones I really wanted to node about. Matt Ruff's first novel, published in 1988 by Warner Books, is one such book; it occupies a special place in my heart.
I bought Fool on the Hill mostly for its title, an allusion to a favorite Beatles song of mine, and came away hugely pleasantly surprised. A retelling of the archetypal story of St. George and the Dragon, with multiple shamelessly interwoven plot lines and tangled side stories to keep the reader entertained along the way, it mixes fantasy, surrealism, romance (in the classical courtly love sense) with action, humor, and the hints of autobiography that infect every first novel to some degree. Sound ambitious? It is. Does it stretch its limits at times? Well, yes. Did I enjoy it anyhow? I did, six ways from Tuesday. But I'll try to stop raving about it long enough to say something more substantial about the book.
The primary story is that of Stephen Titus George, a young writer-in-residence at Cornell University. Is he the author in disguise? Quite possibly, and in any case George is used as a vehicle for rambling discussions about love, sex, Art, Life, and writing without paper, a blurring of the latter two that becomes increasingly important as our hero is caught up in a story that began centuries before at the meddling of Mr. Sunshine, a Greek Original. In his adventures, George encounters Calliope, the most beautiful woman in the world, and the lovely Aurora Borealis Smith, who has quite a few tricks up her sleeves as well.
Some of George's best friends at Cornell are the Bohemians, who inhabit Risley Hall (please see Risley Residential College for the Creative and Performing Arts) and generally promote the spirit of wacky nonconformism. Their leaders are Lion-Heart and the Grey Lady Myoko, who nominally direct the activities of the Bohemian Ministers: Aphrodite, in charge of Love; Panhandle, in charge of Lust; Z.Z. Top, in charge of Bad Taste; Ragnarok, Minister of Defense, and the latter's best friend, Preacher, Minister of Ministry. The Bohemians form an alliance with Tolkien House, a mysterious organization even more ancient and magical than their own; their arch-enemies are the brothers of Rho Alpha Tau, the Rat Frat.
George's secret admirer is a fairy named Zephyr. Her grandfather Hobart, the Keeper of the Chimes at the McGraw Bell Tower, is a veteran of the War fought between the fairies and evil Rasferret the Grub; her two-timing lover is Puck, who confides his romantic woes to the sprite Hamlet. Yes, the references to Shakespeare are copious and deliberate. There's a hilarious, if unrelated to the fairies, discussion about Romeo and Juliet as well.
Yet another subplot features the quest of Luther, a stray mongrel dog, who is looking for Heaven, and his friend Blackjack, a tough-as-nails Manx cat who follows Luther in the hopes of keeping him out of trouble. Along their way to befriending George, they get caught up in a brewing war between Purebred and Mongrel dogs. They make for fun four-legged philosophy.
To tell much more would be to give too much away; the story starts off a bit slowly, with lots of colorful characterizations and background, but gradually lurches up to speed for a roaring cataclysm of climax. This is vaguely reminiscent of Neal Stephenson's books, only Ruff actually ties up all the loose ends and makes a satisfying ending out of all his explosions and monkeys at typewriters, rather than a puff of smoke that leaves you gasping to catch your breath (not that there's anything wrong with that).
Fool on the Hill, in case I haven't made it completely clear, is one of my favorite books of all time. It's not great literature, but it's a helluva lot of fun to read. As a result, it was something of a cult classic among Cornell students for years, during which I could only find it in Ithaca. Fool on the Hill has become more widely available since the publication of Matt Ruff's second novel, Sewer, Gas, & Electric: the Public Works Trilogy.
Update, 19 March 2003: Upon noding The Fool (both a bit about the Tarot card and a Robert Creeley passage), it occurs to me that in some editions of Fool on the Hill, the cover art is at least loosely based on the card in question, featuring a young man in mid-stride, gazing up at the sky, accompanied by a frolicking dog. My copy has a more generic image of a young man walking along, flying a kite with a dragon on it behind him.