2006_07_23_freddyandfred.jpg We are always willing to forgive a hero his foibles, provided his quest is worthy. Odysseus can fall under Calypso’s spell, Don Quixote can tilt at windmills, and Heracles can kill his own wife and children in a blind rage – the hero remains triumphant in the hearts of the people so long as his pursuit is noble.

Which is more than I can say about Prince Freddy of Wales in Mark Helprin’s new paperback, Freddy and Fredericka. In a novel that veers from picaresque to farce to satire without taking a breath in between genres, loaded with characters that are dead ringers for the modern English royal family or hastily drawn caricatures of American stereotypes, I’m never quite sure how much I support Freddy as my misguided but ultimately redeemable hero. If I had to damn the wildly fluctuating 550-page novel with one sin, it would be gluttony.

Freddy and Fredericka (sharply-drawn knockoffs of Charles and the late Diana) are the Prince and Princess of Wales in a present-day England that has passed their relevancy by. The gracious Queen Philippa (a much kinder portrait of Elizabeth than we’re accustomed to) and the gruff Prince Paul (again, Phillip without the foot-in-mouth disease) are desperate to turn their stalwart but bumbling son into a man worthy to be king. After too many devastating public scenes where Freddy says something ridiculous or Fredericka’s cleavage makes national headlines, the Queen turns to Mr. Neil, a mysterious fix-it guy whose improbable, dubious solution is to parachute the heir and his wife naked into New Jersey with the daunting command to return sovereignty of America to the crown. That’s right – forget windmills, we’re re-conquering the colonies.

After far too many over-the-top misunderstandings worthy of a Neil Simon play and absurd situations straight out of a Farrelly brothers movie, Freddy and Fredericka discover the simple message behind hard work, earned rest, and living off the land. They work in menial jobs across the land, fall more in love than ever before, and begin to understand the transformations that their quest necessitated. Bully for them.

Not bad for a quest, right? And indeed, some of the highlights of the book are the worthy and subtle transformations of character, the increasing depth and austerity that Helprin brings to his two spoiled royals as they invest themselves in the true meanings of freedom and nobility. Fair enough, but those other pesky genres that birthed our novel keep rearing their ugly heads. For one, the puns.

Puns are like the diseased hyenas on the sweeping majestic plains of language. They’re painful, cheap, and prodding them like open sores only makes them worse. And Helprin, for reasons known to him, stuffs them into the novel like they’re on sale. The randy mistress to our Prince of Wales? Lady Phoebe Boylinghotte. An Australian newspaper baron? Lord Didgeridoo. Ouch, ouch.

Worse, perhaps, than the puns, are the lengthy double entendres that Freddy is constantly falling into. Remember “Who’s on First?” There must be one of these Abbot and Costello-esque exchanges every thirty pages or so. The first few make the point well enough – our heroes are in a world that doesn’t understand them and has no need for them. But by the twentieth agonizing exchange, you stop caring about the inherent symbolism at play. You just want the hyenas to stop.

The failing of Freddy and Fredericka’s great clumsy journey of self-discovery is that there’s simply too much foible for one small noble quest to bear. Helprin is an immensely talented and prolific writer, and there are moments of genuine hilarity (when Freddy overturns a shabby touristy Medieval Faire joust from years of training with the greatest masters of fencing), and moments of sweeping dramatic beauty (the flee to safety from a ravaging forest fire in the Rockies). But there are also too many moments of achingly bad jokes, of caricatures groaning under the weight of fiction and satire, of two nations and their histories being committed to canvas with a hurried brush unworthy of their real heroes, their real struggles.

Slimming down to one genre, one purpose, perhaps Helprin’s fanciful tale would have gracefully made it through the right door. But between the hero’s journey, the political satire, and the slapstick farce, perhaps this time, Emperor is wearing too many clothes.