Today I re-read this book by Jules Feiffer (which is not a household name, although I don't see why not), which was one of the favorites of my childhood. I was pleased to discover that it remains just as good, just as funny, just as touching, and just as real when I read it now as it did ten years ago.
It has been said that the measure of a good fantasy novel is that it is as good at five as at fifty-five. By this standard, A Barrel of Laughs, a Vale of Tears is an excellent fantasy novel. It stands up just as well to my critical adult eyes as it did to my youthful ones back when I only knew what I liked, not why. Now, however, I can at least make a go at articulating the why.
This is a fantasy book. It is the story of a young prince who is sent out on a quest so that he will grow up a bit and stop being so naïve. He does, gets the girl, and lives happily ever after. No, wait, that can't be right. I've become sick of the whole bildungsroman trope, and my summary makes it sound just like one. Let me try again.
This is a story about people. It is a story about a prince who makes everyone laugh, not by being funny, but just by being, and the quest he gets sent on so he'll stop, because it's hard to get anything done when everyone around the prince can't stop laughing. It is a story about the people he meets, each of whom has his or her own quest and his or her own personality, made real in a handful of sentences.
This is a mix of many things I like. It has a hero who gets rescued by a woman more often than the reverse. It has a narrator who keeps talking directly to the reader. It has a fairy-tale feel but a nontraditional ending. It has complex morality. It has no fourth wall. It has lines like: If you read Homer's book The Iliad, you'll find that his heroes, before entering battle, tell their opponents almost more about themselves than you'd want to tell your best friend. Where they're from, what their father does, their entire life's history, except, perhaps, what they did on their summer vacation. How can you resist a book for children that can reference the Iliad without sounding patronizing?
It is a story about life, a story that makes life funny and tragic and hopeful and unexpected. Now that I think about it, a lot of the other stories I like best are like that. Maybe it isn't "realistic". But it's real.
And, like I said, it's just as good now as it was when I was eight. I highly recommend it.