by Matt Ruff
Even though Sewer, Gas & Electric was my first foray into the delightful world of Matt Ruff, I still have Ruff’s debut novel, Fool on the Hill, to credit for the introduction because it was this book, and not the former that a friend recommended years ago. I loved Sewer, Gas, & Electric so much that I convinced myself to save Fool on the Hill for later to, like, savor the goodness or something. I don’t know; clearly I was an idiot, as there is probably no limit to how many times one can enjoy a Matt Ruff novel. There is just so much there to digest and his style is endearingly ADD. I get the feeling that both of these books will be even more enjoyable to me the second time around.
I said in my review of Sewer, Gas, & Electric two years ago that Ruff is fond of massive character rosters and convoluted plots. Just like the former, Fool on the Hill boasts an array of irreverent, liberal characters just bloated enough to require a two-page cast list for reference (and you will use it if you read this book) and a complicated, messy plot that all comes together for a comprehensive final act. In Fool on the Hill, the characters are divided into five main groups: Stephen Titus George and Aurora (the ‘white knight’ and the ‘princess’), the Bohemians (larger than life college students that play around the edges of the plot), Luther and Blackjack (the animals on a spiritual quest), the sprites (invisible to most humans, but affecting the plot nonetheless), and an omniscient otherworldly narrator, Mr. Sunshine. Each of those groups is divided into subgroup consisting of various combinations, with others weaving in and out of the story—a pair of Ithaca cops, some engineering students building a float, Aurora’s impulsive but doting father, a preppy frat boy villain.
Ganted, I—more than most readers—really take to comprehensive ensemble stories, so I am inclined to like Ruff’s style more than others generally would. I did not in the least regret having such a large list to keep track of, but it should be warned that others might. That said, I think it’s worth pointing out that while Ruff’s characters are often of a similar hivemind, and few of them are intensively explored, they all manage to stand out in unique ways. One of the things I kept noticing about Ruff’s characters is that even the smallest one, a character who, in any other story, would be a throwaway, manage to reveal something about themselves that gives them some depth, like Aurora’s long dead brother whose spontaneity and spirit forever changed her interaction with her father, or the Bohemian who joined the group long before our story ever started because he was pursuing a member who dropped out after being assaulted by a rival frat brother. All of these things seem so inconsequential but it is really these types of details that fill in the space between the lines.
The story takes place at Cornell University over the course of a school year and there are a lot of elements guiding the plot, not the least of which is Mr. Sunshine, a ‘Greek original,’ who occasionally sticks his hand in to mold the plot directly but is mostly content to sit back and watch fate play itself out. The sprites were generally my least favorite part of the story, but it is their misguided but well-intentioned actions that release the evil that the human characters have to deal with in the end, so they are crucial, even if they never talk to anyone else. Luther and Blackjack were definitely my favorite parts of the story, though the Bohemians will hold a special place in your heart, just for the sheer ludicrousness of them all. This whole book is a messy but fun mix of adventure, fantasy, romance and humor that just keeps adding layer upon layer.
Fool on the Hill was Ruff’s debut novel, and I didn’t find it quite as riotous as Sewer, Gas & Electric but to be fair, I knew what to expect this time and that changed the way I read it. I’d easily put it on par with the former, in terms of humor, and I am beyond thrilled to see how much more Ruff has in store.