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Fool on the Hill, by Matt Ruff

Rating: 5.0 Roses published 1988, Grove Press Books

Fool on the Hill is some of the best fun you can have while lounging in your favorite easy chair, at least with your clothes on. Full of quirky language and good humor, this roller-coaster of a story lurches along merrily from beginning to end, offering laughs and thrills along the way.

Fool on the Hill takes place at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and knits together what surely must be one of the most disparate casts of characters ever assembled. The protagonist, S.T. George, is a writer-in-residence who takes his inspiration from failed romances. Though he doesn't know it yet, he is destined to slay dragons and to fall in love with Calliope, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World. The Bohemians, a group of campus non-conformists extraordinaire led by King Lion-Heart, pursue their quest to bring down their hated enemy, the fraternity Rho Alpha Tau. Surrounded by these bizarre characters, Aurora Borealis Smith, the conforming daughter of a surreptitious non-conformist, wonders if there might be more to life than marrying her uptight fundamentalist boyfriend. A naive young dog named Luther searches for Heaven, accompanied by his cynical friend Blackjack the cat.And a group of Shakespearean sprites guard an ancient evil, which unfortunately is about to slip its bonds and wreak havoc on all of Ithaca ...

Filling out the story are a variety of supporting characters, from "Ithacop" officers Nattie Hollister and Sam Doubleday, to activist Fantasy Dreadlock and his Blue Zebra Hooter Patrol, to the brothers of Tolkien House, a fraternity that takes its inspiration from the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. All of the characters in Fool on the Hill are vivid and charming in a cartoony kind of way, with the possible exception of Ragnarok, the Bohemian Minister of Defense, a motorcycle-riding Black Knight with a haunted past.

The author of this mad masterwork, Matt Ruff, claims to have been heavily influenced by the style of fantasy author John Crowley, among others. This is apparent in his use of language, which echoes both Crowley's literary tone and his uncanny emotional perceptions. I get the feeling that Fool on the Hill aspires to some grand insights, but never really reaches them. This slight whiff of pretention, however, can easily be brushed aside in favor of the book's engaging characters and sparkling plot. Fool on the Hill has won my heart -- it's a delight that I know I'll be rereading for years to come.

Review by Sara Lipowitz
Reviewed August 14, 1998

ISBN 0-8021-3535-8


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