The Book That Changed My Life: A Barrel of Laughs, A Vale of Tears
Jules Feiffer titled his 1995 masterpiece of madcap fantasy all too perfectly.
In "The Night of the Frogs"—the book's fake fifth chapter, which is slipped discretely into the narrative to trick a shady hunter who "refused to leave this book when he should have" at the end of chapter one—our author/narrator/tour guide tells us "I came up with a title I'm proud of because it sounds like poetry, which is good, and it isn't, which is better."
But for me, a boy who first had this book read aloud to him over a week of eagerly anticipated bedtimes in 2nd grade, the bittersweet title has a different meaning. This is the book that made 7-year-old me realize a truly great story can make you laugh and cry in turn within a few short sentences.
A Barrel of Laughs, A Vale of Tears is 180 pages of fantastical humor, illustrated by the author with black-and-white pen strokes, and easily devoured in an afternoon. It's the story of Roger, the young prince of a medieval-sort-of fantasy realm whose life is equally charmed and cursed. Roger has never witnessed tragedy (even when his mama was eaten by a blue whale, Roger couldn't help but look on the bright side: blue is his favorite color) and accordingly represents an unlimited beacon of cheer to the sad sacks who populate the kingdom around him.
Anyone who crosses his path smiles. Anyone who talks to him bursts into uncontrollable laughter. J. Wellington Wizard, one of Roger's court confidantes, has to use magic powder to turn the kid into an armchair or daffodil or some other decidedly un-funny object just to hold a conversation with him.
Unbridled joy is a lovely quality, we find out, but it just don't make for a very shrewd or sympathetic ruler. Roger's dad, King Whatchamacallit, engineers a quest with J. Wellington Wizard aimed to throw Roger into unfamiliar adventure, experience, and more than a pinch of character-building hardship. The path of Roger's quest is clear enough—through the Forever Forest, across the Dastardly Divide, into the Valley of Vengeance and up the Mountain of Malice—but the goal is a bit more mysterious.
"Whatever it is, whoever it is," J. Wellington Wizard tells Roger, "you will know you have found it when neither of you is laughing."
The ensuing journey is amazingly imaginative, heart-warmingly sweet, and endlessly amusing, even on the 80th or 90th re-read. Feiffer's deadpan narration makes the absurd unquestionable, and works best when he struggles for control over his own irascible characters like the hunter from chapter one:
"'I will never hunt again,' " said the man, who, though no longer a hunter, but still in this book, should have a name. How about Jack?
'I am Tom,' said the former hunter, who will not do anything I tell him."
Like this hunter who starts as a throwaway opening gag, Feiffer's fantasy world bursts with an uncontrollable energy. Characters and landscapes move in constant flux, playing medieval matchmaker to unlikely partners and striking moral gold from unlikely veins. At the end of Roger's quest, Wellington Wizard informs us that things were supposed to play out differently. In this not-too-far-off reality where a wizard can't control his quest and an author can't control his characters, sometimes all you can do is laugh.
There are many tales of humor and whimsy that changed me in some small way or another—The Phantom Tollbooth, The Time Warp Trio, Avi's Perloo—but the one that gave me the adventuring spirit to let all those others into my life was A Barrel of Laughs, A Vale of Tears. This is the book that taught me what a truly great story can do—that epic adventure, fantastical world building, and get-you-kicked-out-of-the-library laughter needn't be mutually exclusive.
This is the book that made me want to write.
Read the first 37 pages here. If that's not enough to convince you, then you clearly need a Roger in your life.