It is a literary event when a genuinely new fictional voice comes along. When that voice achieves its newness not through a certain formal facility but through the freshness of its vision, there is truly something to celebrate. Matt Ruff was only twenty-two when Fool on the Hill was first published, but with his novel he gave us a story that won over readers of every persuasion. Not your usual first effort, Fool on the Hill is a full-blown epic of life and death, good and evil, magic and love.
Think of the imaginative daring of Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale. The zany popism of Tom Robbins’s Another Roadside Attraction. The gnomish fantasies of J.R. Tolkien. Think of these and you begin to get some idea of one of the most remarkable first novels to come along in years.
In the world of Fool on the Hill dogs and cats can talk, a subculture of sprites lives in the shadows and underfoot (if you’re the sensitive type, or drunk enough, you might see them cavorting across the lawn), and the Bohemians, a group of Harley- and horseback-riding students dedicated to all things unconventional, hold all-night revels for the glory of their cause.
Then there is Stephen Titus George, the novel’s youthful hero, who somehow finds himself the main player in a story that began well over a century ago. George is a mild-mannered flier of kites, a sometimes writer of bestselling fiction, and would-be knight looking for a maiden. George will find his girl and the century-old story will provide the proverbial dragon whose slaying will sanctify their love. But it will not be a sword that fells the foe but the transforming power of the imagination.