Although he wrote several memoirs detailing his time in the army, and many pastiches of popular works of fiction, Puckoon is Spike Milligan’s only outright original fictional novel. That in itself is a shame, because Puckoon is short, sweet, and deliciously funny. You can’t help but wish there was an entire series!
Giving a story synopsis isn’t easy, because the few pages of Puckoon (it runs to just over 150 pages) burst with a large cast of colourful characters who have their own madcap adventures. The protagonist, Dan Milligan, is forced into action by the author, and plenty of breaks to the fourth wall ensue as conversations are held between the character and the writer. When Milligan takes on a job as the gardener for Father Rudden at a local church, he bites off more than he can chew owing to the incompetence of bureaucrats who create a border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic that runs right through the graveyard: in fact – it cuts the town in half.
With his customary wordplay and inventiveness, Milligan also satirises some serious points. He returns to one of his most frequent topics, WWII, and recounts his protagonist’s problems: “One man retreating is called running away, but a whole Regiment running away is called a retreat? I demand to be tried by cowards!”
Puckoon is full of such brilliantly observed bons mots, and although the story meanders about all over the place, it’s a pleasure to be led through the daft town of Puckoon and introduced to its hilarious characters through the pen of Spike Milligan. Whilst Puckoon becomes an out-and-out farce (and there’s nothing wrong with that); behind the fake burials and the comedy Chinese policeman lies a healthy irreverence towards The Troubles, and the pettiness of the police in enforcing the arbitrary boundary between north and south. The Irishman in Milligan has rarely been so potent. The novel was published in 1963, when the IRA was no longer a sleeping tiger, and there’s a sense of righteous anger that permeates the pages of this brilliant satire.
Puckoon still feels fresh as a daisy. Milligan’s prose is crisp, clean and laugh-out-loud funny. It could have been written yesterday. This speaks volumes about the influence Spike Milligan had on the course of British comedy, defining what makes us laugh for succeeding generation since. Journeying through Puckoon is like taking a ride inside Milligan’s mind. It’s unsettling and chaotic, and certainly mad: but it’s also packed with insights about the idiotic race we call humans, and is relentlessly laugh-out-loud funny.
Puckoon is a comic masterpiece from a genius who was prolific in all but the novel form, and is well worth a visit. Just make sure you take your passport and know which side of the border you’re on.