Puckoon is a strange book. This is not really a useful thing to open any criticism with, I’m aware, but I’ve been wracking my brain for two days now, and I’m not sure there’s another way into this that simply and fully sums up my mind after having read Puckoon for the second time, fifteen years after the first reading. It’s a strange book, and that is both entirely expected and a marvellous surprise.
The first and only novel by ‘Spine Milligna’, the well known typing error (possibly my favourite of his jokes), Puckoon is set in 1924 at the division of Ireland into the Republic and the North. Unfortunately, due to The Boundary Commission’s indecisiveness on everything except wanting to go to the pub, the border ends up going right through the middle of the rural and quiet Puckoon, causing all hell to break loose as the church is split from its graveyard, and the pub is suddenly straddling two countries with different beer prices. It’s a plot that particularly resonates right now, with all the hard-border/soft-border talk surrounding Ireland and Brexit.
I’m gonna get it out of the way now because it’s the not nice bit to talk about. The book was written in 1963 by a man who did not have the same ideas of how to deal with race in humour as we do now (see the ill-fated sitcom “Curry and Chips” for further examples of this). Even though, for the most part, Milligan’s heart seems to be in the right place with the message of this book, it is very racially insensitive – even to the Irish he shared a passport with – and it makes for very uncomfortable reading in places. This is particularly compounded by the use of phonetic dialogue to reflect the different accents of characters in the book, the Chinese policeman Ah Pong being a chief example. I say this not to take away from the experience of reading the book, but as a reminder that how we want to say the same things in a humorous way changes through time, and that Spike Milligan was, bluntly speaking, a man who thought he had the right to use words and tell jokes that he didn’t. Milligan was a man of his time, and it shows through in this book.
So, with the ‘icky bit I don’t really have much right to say a lot on as a white lady’ out of the way, what was my experience of reading Puckoon? Well, as a huge comedy nerd, it is exactly the kind of novel I’d expect from someone who’d spent so long writing radio comedy. The plot of a small community being split in two in some drastic manner leading to hilarious and messy consequences is something straight out of a radio sitcom, while the interaction between the narrator and the main character (which Puckoon is particularly lauded for) is something Milligan wrote repeatedly into his radio series the Goon Show. What makes Puckoon so different and interesting is that Milligan took all the tropes and tricks he was used to from radio and slammed them straight into a novel, expecting them to just get on with it for themselves. And it makes for some chaotic reading. I don’t know how anyone who isn’t already familiar with Milligan’s work will find reading this novel, because it’s… well it’s a Milliganovel. It’s silly and erratic and occasionally the jokes come out of absolutely nowhere and slap you in the face and just keep running. References and ideas and stories just happen in the middle of everything, and it’s less a case of being carried along on the plot as it is being swept along in a jumbling avalanche of subversion. It’s Milligan in full creative swing without the smoothing element of a co-writer, resulting in something that’s slow and fast paced all at once and that doesn’t really care much for the reader. It’s postmodern literature in its purest sense because it’s not really trying to be anything but what it is, and for that I kind of like it, but I’m frustrated with it all the same. Puckoon is every bit as difficult, delightful, frustrating and brilliant as Milligan himself. In some ways, I don’t think any novel has ever been quite as true to its author as a reflection of their person, and for that, I can’t but salute it.