Stuff I Like - Fool on the Hill

Welcome to Stuff I Like month here at the blog. Every day in June, I’ll be blogging about something that I really dig. And we’re going to start with a book that’s stayed with me for a long time.

Come with me now to the days of yore. Specifically, the early 1990s. I was in college, but don’t ask me the year. A lot of the details are fuzzy; I’m pretty sure I was in the cafeteria, reading a magazine while I ate. What I do remember was a chart, which showed what students at various colleges were watching, listening to, and reading. I seem to remember seeing The Secret History on there more than once. But it was an odd entry that caught my eye. “Fool on the Hill, a fantasy set at Cornell University.”

“Huh,” I thought. “I’d like to read that.”

And then I forgot all about it, because this was the early 1990s and if you wanted a book and it wasn’t in your local, you were pretty much boned. You kids with your Amazon and your Nooks and your libraries and—wait, shit, we had libraries back then too. ANYWAY.

Cut to about five years later. I was browsing a used bookstore called The Book Rack. The place was—and is—teeming with romance novels with severely curved spines, and enough John Grisham to open a law practice. I nosed around the sci-fi section. I don’t remember what I was looking for; probably nothing, probably just killing time.

And then I found it.

This was the specific cover. I don't know why they dressed George up like the Eleventh Doctor twenty years early.

This was the specific cover. I don't know why they dressed George up like the Eleventh Doctor twenty years early.

My memory is weird. I can’t remember conversations, I have trouble matching names to faces, but little bits of ephemera, like the title of an intriguing novel, will stay with me. I grabbed the paperback, bought it for a couple of bucks, took it home.

And then I didn’t finish it for months.

I’m not sure why, I don’t know what was going on in my life that was so damn important I couldn’t finish a book. It couldn’t have been very interesting if I can’t bring it to mind now.

What I do remember is picking the book up after a while, sitting down, and reading, and then finishing the remaining ninety percent of it in a day or two.

Fool on the Hill by Matt Ruff is a sprawling book, taking place over a collegiate year at Cornell University. Our hero is S.T. George, writer in residence, who is already a rich and famous novelist at 23. (It’s a fantasy story.) George isn’t just our hero, he’s the unwitting main character of Mister Sunshine, who tells stories by manipulating real people. Without realizing it, George is sent on an epic adventure, involving faeries, dogs and cats, and a simmering feud between an evil fraternity and the biker knights known as the Bohemians.

I loved it. I still do. For long years, the book was out of print; when it came back in the late 90s, I bought several copies and gave them out as Christmas presents. It is that type of book, in the same vein as The Princess Bride or The Night Circus, the kind you want to share, generous, magical tales that are as much about the art of storytelling as they are about the characters. And if it seems a little naïve, that’s part of the charm of the thing.

There are scenes that stay with you, like Lady Calliope walking along streetlights, her appearance changing in the dark spaces between. Or the Halloween party at Tolkien House, or George’s reading by the fireside, or Ragnarok’s first appearance.

“…just as a classic heroic tale needs a Saint, an unabashedly White-Hatted and periodically naïve champion of romantic love, so too it isn’t quite complete without that other, more dubious good guy: The Black Knight.” That’s Ragnarok. We properly meet him for the first time when he intervenes in the sport of the frat rats of Rho Alpha Tau, facing down their leader, Jack Baron, and scaring the shit out of him. I love this scene and have probably stolen from it as many ways as it is possible to do so; in fact, when I first auditioned to do audiobooks for Dynamic Ram, it was this scene from which I read. It’s great.

The whole thing is great. I recommend it without reservation. Head over to Matt Ruff’s site and buy it from one of the many links.

PS - Popdose has created a downloadable mixtape for Fool on the Hill; check it out, but beware of spoilers.