North Adams Transcript | John E. Mitchell | July 25, 2008
GENTLEMAN JIM reviewed by North Adams Transcript
Through books like "The Bear" and "The Snowman" Raymond Briggs has met with acclaim largely for books aimed at kids that have a dark edge to them. They stop short of actually being depressing, but the humor they disperse has a bite, peppered with an outlook that is not wholly sunny. Briggs has also branched out in his career with works like "Where the Wind Blows," a fable of nuclear war that plunges to the depths of sadness.
Somewhere in between these extremes lies "Gentleman Jim," which takes the forlorn of a life wasted and the inability to crawl to higher heights and adds a childlike whimsy to the proceedings. In this way, it plays to both audiences -- more importantly, it serves as a funny tale that may just lodge itself in a kid's brain, a lesson learned to be applied at the crossroads we all face.
The book's title refers not to the main character Jim, but to a roving masked highwayman that Jim pulls from his favorite escapist literature. Jim wants to be Gentleman Jim, but is in reality a bathroom attendant long past his prime, though not too old to dream of changing his life. Daydreaming on the job and spouting off ideas with his patient wife, Jim goes through a litany of career and life change plans before settling on highwayman. Unfortunately, Jim is naive to the point of idiocy and not only can he not tell the difference between reality and fantasy, he also has little intuition on the way things work in the real world.
Much of the humor of the book is pulled from the inability of Jim and his wife to understand the world around him and the spectacle of his schemes falling apart thanks to society's rigidity. On one hand, Briggs seems entirely on Jim's side -- on the other, there are aspects to Jim and his wife which shows a cruelty in Briggs' writing and an anger in his conception. This is not so much a criticism as an observation of Briggs' usual tone and it's place in this story -- the rounded, ruddy-cheeked people born of his art style sometimes imply a sweetness to his stories that don't necessarily exist. As the characters unfold, they become as much an examination of Briggs' psychology as their own.
As the story winds down, the hostility holds far less strength against the humor and "Gentleman Jim" turns out to be something that a kid might enjoy without perceiving the negatives. Briggs's concoctions are always filled with emotional depth and good laughs -- "Gentleman Jim" is that best kind of book, one that grows with the reader and reveals previously hidden aspects that are found through maturity.