From the New York Times Bestselling author of Lovecraft Country, now an HBO series.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.
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THE PATRON SAINT OF DAYDREAMS
On a windless summer day in an uncertain year, more than a century after the founding of Cornell, a man who told lies for a living climbed to the top of The Hill to fly a kite. He was a young man, a surprisingly wealthy one even for a professional liar, and he lived alone in a gaudy yellow house on Stewart Avenue.
The liar (who was also known as a fiction writer) walked up Libe Slope at a brisk pace, so used to the incline that he barely huffed and did not puff at all. Halfway to the top he paused to check the sky; it promised rain, but not for a while. He continued his climb.
It was a Sunday, and he was on his way to the Arts Quad, which he unabashedly believed to be the heart of the University. During the year the Quad saw more activity than any other part of campus, from the Greek Festival in September to the burning of the Green Dragon in March, and besides, the Arts Quad was where it had all started. The first three University buildings to be erected — Morrill, White, and McGraw Halls — sat at the crest of The Hill like old grey men, keeping a weary eye on the town below. Just south of them the McGraw Chimes Tower poked at the sky from the side of Uris Library, another sentinel. The Chimes were a heartbeat to go with the heart, though that beat was sometimes off-key.
The Arts Quad was also one hell of a place to fly kites, even on a day with no wind.
Reaching the top of the Slope, the man who told lies for a living passed between Morrill and McGraw. Squat boxes, the two Halls were a tribute to Ezra Cornell's total lack of aesthetics — and they also went a long way toward explaining why more artistically minded architects had been hired to design most of the other University buildings.
Once on the Quad, the professional liar saluted the memorial statues of Ezra Cornell and Andrew White, and sat down in the grass to assemble his kite. At this hour — the hands on the McGraw Tower clock stood at five past noon — he was the only person up here. Cornell was going through its annual hibernation, the hiatus between the time when the last summer students left and the first regular students arrived for the fall term. The largely residential North and West Campuses were ghost towns now; Central Campus was occupied only by a smattering of professors here and there, most of whom were still in bed, visions of research grants dancing in their heads.
The dogs were out, though. As always. Back in the late Thirties a man named Ottomar Lehenbauer, one of the original stockholders in the Ford Motor Company, had donated two million dollars to Cornell's Engineering School. Because "Lehenbauer Hall" would have been a bumpy-sounding mouthful — and perhaps a bit too German-sounding for that day — the Board of Trustees convinced Ottomar to set a different condition on the donation. After thinking it over he created a codicil that granted free run of the campus to any and all dogs, "be they stray or otherwise, for as long as this University shall endure." Due largely to the codicil, the canine population on The Hill had grown until it was now about three times the average for that part of New York State.
The man who told lies for a living looked up from his kite and saw a St. Bernard eyeing him from beneath a tree. He gestured to it, at the same time reaching into the Swiss Army bag that hung over his shoulder. He brought out a handful of dog biscuits and scattered them on the ground.
"You hungry?" he asked the dog. The Bernard got up, trotted over unhurriedly, and after a quick sniff ate the biscuits. Then it flopped down and allowed itself to be petted.
"Good boy," the man who told lies for a living said, scratching the Bernard's stomach. "It's always nice to have some company. You want to hear a story about how I got to be rich and famous?"
The dog barked noncommittally.
"Oh, come on. It's a good story, really. And it's got a beautiful woman in it. Seven years' worth of beautiful women, in fact. What do you say?"
The dog barked again, sounding more positive.
"Good! That's the spirit!" the professional liar said. The liar's name was Stephen Titus George, though on the cover of his first book this had been shortened to S. T. George. A critic — a very kind critic — had taken things one step further, referring to him as "St. George."
This was more appropriate than anyone would ever know.
"I never knew my parents," George began, assembling the kite as he spoke. "I grew up with my Uncle Erasmus. Erasmus was sort of the family black sheep because of his profession, but he was also the only one who'd take responsibility for a kid that wasn't his. He was a sculptor, talented, high on ambition, though actually he made most of his money selling concrete animals, which you'd think wouldn't be too profitable but hey, we were living in New York City. Three days a week he'd drive his van out from Queens to Manhattan, set up a table on some busy sidewalk, five dollars apiece for solid cement squirrels, chipmunks, pigeons — Urban Jungle Art, he called it. Most impractical souvenir I've ever heard of — who wants to lug a concrete pigeon around the sights all day? — but the tourists were crazy about them, especially the Southerners. Never took Erasmus more than three hours to sell out his entire stock, and then he'd come home and fill up the molds again, make another batch. Left him plenty of time to do the sculpture he really wanted to do, and we never went hungry.
"He turned me on to the arts when I was still very young. 'The thing to remember, George,' he used to say, 'is that artists are magical beings. They're the only people other than the gods who can grant immortality.'
"That got me psyched, you know? Everyone wants to be like God, at least until they reach puberty. For a while I tried sculpting, but it wasn't really to my taste. Then one day I had to write a short story for a sixth-grade English competition, and something just clicked. I went and asked my Uncle if he'd mind my becoming an author, and he gave me his blessing, bought me a ballpoint pen for my very own. So I started writing, slowly and without much talent at first, but —"
The Bernard raised his head and barked twice.
"I'll be getting to the lady in just a minute," George promised. "Be patient. Now as I was about to say, my biggest problem in the beginning was that I was too content with my life. Writers need anxiety to draw on for inspiration; if everything's going peachy, you're sunk. Fortunately in my case, puberty came early.
"In my sophomore year of high school, I fell absolutely and hopelessly in lust with a girl named Caterina Sesso. I'd like to say I fell in love with her, but I won't lie to you: 'lust' is the honest term. She was an Italian, and in those days Italian girls were all the rage. Later on redheads came into vogue, and just now the fad is Asians, but in high school the state-of-the-art girlfriend was an Italian. All of which is racist and sexist as hell, but I've never actually met anyone who didn't have a preference, have you?
"Caterina was Italian, but she was also Catholic (the two sort of go together), which was a bad break for me. Catholic girls are all taught to avoid lust, and things were made even worse in my case because I came from a semi-Protestant background. I tried all the normal approaches and she refused to have anything to do with me. Then, after torturing myself over her for weeks on end, I sat down with my pen and wrote her a story. Twenty-three pages. And it was good, too — best thing I'd written up to that time. I typed it up, Xeroxed it, and gave a copy to Caterina.
"Four months later, on my sixteenth birthday, she gave in and had sex with me." (Here the Bernard barked again, and George nodded.) "I know. Surprised me too. It wasn't just the story that did it, you understand, but that definitely opened the door, convinced her to give me the time of day. We went together for a while, and then the night I turned sixteen there was this party at my Uncle's with all my friends. When that broke up around midnight, Caterina and I wandered over to Flushing Meadow Park. We sat and drank beer until two, and then we lay down underneath that big steel globe they built for the World's Fair, and started making out, and just kept going.
"Next thing we knew it was sunrise, and someone had come along and stolen the leftover beer."
The Bernard barked twice, questioningly.
"What happened then? Well, for a week I couldn't write a single word. Life was perfect, not a care in the world, so I had nothing to drive me. That problem solved itself quickly enough, though — after her next confession Caterina decided that we'd committed a mortal sin, and broke up with me.
"I spent the next seven years, right up to today, trying to get back to that birthday night under the World's Fair globe."
"Simple. My luck did a complete reverse. Maybe I broke a mirror without realizing it. All I know for certain is that every time I got near a woman after that I thought about how it'd been with Caterina and wound up trying too hard, scaring them off. But my writing style kept getting better and better, mostly from all the practice.
"When I was seventeen a woman I'd never seen before ran up and kissed me on Fifth Avenue, then took off before I even knew what had happened; I went home and wrote my first published short story. Just before the end of high school I saw a redhead tooling around the neighborhood in a Corvette and The New Yorker paid me three hundred dollars for the result. And then I came here.
"Sophomore year at Cornell I fell madly in lust again, this time with a Taiwanese punker. Incredible-looking woman. I wrote her a novel over Christmas vacation. Burned off four hundred pages in a month. I didn't get to sleep with her, never even knew her name, but the book got published and it bestsold. So did the next two books ..."
The Bernard stood up and shook itself furiously.
"Swear to God!" George told it. "Why would I lie to a dog? When I go home to Queens for visits my Uncle just smiles at me. 'You sure took after me, didn't you, George?' he says. 'It's a good thing your father isn't still around, or he'd probably accuse me of some funny business.' I'm twenty-three years old, I have enough money to live off for the rest of my life, the critics like me, I'm graduated with extra honors, and now Cornell's taken me on as a writer-in-residence. And all for the want of a steady girlfriend."
Wagging its tail, the dog licked George's hand. Whined.
"No," said George. "Not unhappy. How can you be depressed in a world where a man makes a living selling concrete wildlife? Lonely, maybe. Sometimes. Restless all the time. But I have this theory, see, that Whoever's in charge is setting me up for something big — Moby-Dick, Part Two, with wheels, say, a novel to change the course of history — and once I get it done, the Editor will ease up and let me have sex again, maybe even fall in love for real. Only, after about a month of perfect bliss, He'll turn around again and give me something else to be anxious about ..."
The kite was now fully assembled. George held it up so the Bernard could see. It was a traditional diamond shape, with the head of a dragon painted on a white background, and red rays projecting out from the head. A red and black tail trailed from the bottom.
"I just picked it up last night," George said. "Let's see how she flies, eh?" He stood up and the dog began to bark again. There was still not so much as a ghost of a breeze in the air.
"I know, I know. Don't you worry. I may not have much luck with women, but the wind and I are old lovers."
And while the Bernard looked on doubtfully, George stared up into the sky, as if searching for a familiar face there. He began to turn in place, holding the kite in one hand and a spool of heavy twine in the other, facing first west, then north, then east, then south. Three times around he turned, smiling all the while, as if casting a spell that was as amusing as it was powerful. In a sense he was casting a spell, though whether it was fueled by magic or coincidence he could never have said. All he knew was that it worked.
He stopped turning and gazed deep into the face of the sky once more. "Come on," George coaxed softly, and the wind began to blow. It came out of the west where it had been waiting all along, and lifted up the kite with unseen hands. The Bernard began barking furiously.
"Something else, isn't it? Scared the shit out of me the first time I did it. Now that I'm used to it, though, it's kind of fun."
He stood and listened to the wind, the wind which probably would have blown anyway but which never failed to come when he called, not since his Uncle Erasmus had taken him to fly his first kite when he was twelve.
"Maybe it's not so strange, eh?" he said. "Hell, in a book or a story I can make the wind blow just by typing a single sentence. And you figure the world, real life, that's just another story, one that doesn't need to be written down on paper."
George laughed and winked at the Bernard, while above them the kite soared higher and higher, a dragon in a diamond cage trying its wings for the first time.
"George is feeling lonely again," Zephyr observed from where she stood in the McGraw Tower belfry.
"Is he?" her Grandfather Hobart said absently. Hobart was busy making his daily inspection of the chimes. "That's nice."
"It's a very optimistic lonely," Zephyr added, "but still lonely." She sighed and rested one hand comfortingly on the hilt of her sword, which was actually a two-inch stickpin that had been set into a miniature ivory handle. Zephyr too was a miniature, only a half-foot tall and invisible to human beings, save for the very drunk and the very wise. There were many names for her race — elf, gnome, faerie, Little People — but sprite was the common term. There were well over a thousand sprites living on The Hill, anonymously helping the humans run things.
"I wish there was something I could do for him," said Zephyr. It was part question, and when Hobart didn't immediately offer any suggestions she whirled around, intending to be furious — but of course Hobart wasn't the sort of person you could bring yourself to be furious with.
"Grandfather!" she whined, settling for mock anger. "Are you listening to me?"
"With one ear," Hobart told her. "No offense, dear, but you've been repeating more or less the same thing for the past six months."
"Do you think it's wrong of me?" Zephyr asked seriously.
"To love a human being? No. If that were a crime, I'd be more guilty than you. I loved one too, in my time. Why do you think I've spent the past century taking care of these bells?" He looked affectionately at the chimes. "Dear sweet Jenny McGraw. How I do miss her."
Zephyr leaned forward, interested. "Was she beautiful?" "To my eyes, at least. Not, mind you, as beautiful as your Grandmother Zee, but very close."
"Did she ... did she ever see you?"
"On her deathbed I think she might have. Consumption took her while she was away traveling the world; she came back to Ithaca to die. I was her most constant companion during her final days, more constant than her own husband. And toward the very end, I think, when she'd really begun to slip away, she seemed to take notice of me."
Hobart's eyes grew distant, and a little sad.
"That's the problem with loving a human being," he said. "Most of them can't see you except in extreme circumstances, and even then they don't always believe what they're seeing. Dear Jenny ... I'm almost sure she thought I was nothing more than a hallucination."
"I think George could see me," said Zephyr. "I don't think he'd have to be drunk or dying, either. He's not crazy, but he ... he has strong daydreams."
"Strong daydreams." Hobart chuckled. "And what if this daydreamer could see you, what would you do then? You can't consummate love with a giant, dear. Several times I tried to imagine what it might have been like between Jenny McGraw and myself, and the picture I got was rather embarrassing, to say the least. Some things really aren't meant to be."
"But ... if only there were something ..."
"As for that," Hobart went on, "why do you feel you have to do anything for him? You say he's lonely, but look. He's laughing down there."
"But he was just talking to a dog. People never talk to animals unless they're lonely."
"Your own father used to hold conversations with ferrets."
"Yes, but Father understood ferrets."
"Did he really? It always seemed to me that if he'd really understood them, he wouldn't have wound up being eaten by one. But perhaps I'm just too old and muddleheaded to see the truth of it."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Fool On The Hill"
Copyright © 1988 Matt Ruff.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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