Isle of Joy
by Franklin Daugherty
Publisher – Black Belt Press
Rating – 9.5/10
Summary – In Isle of Joy Franklin Daugherty skewers “Old Mobile” – the blue bloods in Mobile, Alabama, who control social life in “The Port City.” The novel centers on a young woman named Margaret Constance McCorquodale who aims to transform sleepy Mobile into the world center of post-modern thought. But Daugherty’s real aim is to caricature Mobile – and at that he is very successful.
Review – Way back in the 1980s, Mobile author and University of South Alabama faculty member Franklin Daugherty began publishing a serial in The Azalea City News. The serial was a wicked satire of Mobile’s upper crust. In 1988, Daugherty published the serial as a novel titled Postmodern Times. Still later, Daugherty rewrote the serial and published it as the novel Isle of Joy.
(The title Isle of Joy is a reference to Mobile’s Mardi Gras. During the final days of each Mardi Gras, King Felix supposedly comes to Mobile to rule over the celebration. The rest of the year, he lives on the mythical Isle of Joy).
In a relatively-short book, Daugherty manages to weave together three main plots (and several subplots). First, the center of the story is McCorquodale’s attempts to turn Mobile into the center of postmodernism. Second, her campaign brings her into contact with Mobile’s business community, which is busy trying to raze Mobile’s historic district so that it can construct a giant theme park called “Six Flags Over Jesus.” Last is McCorquodale’s aunt’s attempt to prove the her family members are the true heirs to the founders of Mobile’s Mardi Gras.
The first two threads are fantastic, as Daugherty uses them for comedic effect. The genealogy thread is good, but it drags a bit, as the reader can anticipate its ending.
As with most satire, Isle of Joy’s journey is every bit as important as is its destination. The true joy of reading this book is Daugherty’s barbed wit. At its best, Isle of Joy will make you laugh out loud (as my wife can attest). The jokes are dry and often slipped in between the lines. Consider the following –
– When one character walks beside a highway –
“Motorists gawked at the extraordinary sight of someone walking, and speculated about her morality. A policeman on a motorcycle stopped to ask if something was wrong” (p. 17).
– The McCorquodales are…
“…one of the ‘premier families,’… of Chunchula” [Alabama] (p. 18).
– On Mobile’s government –
“Some people liked to compare local political life with that of a small banana republic, but a more apt parallel could be drawn to the court of a senile Turkish emir in a remote malarial province specializing in the cultivation of opium poppies during the twilight days of the Ottoman Empire” (p. 139).
Isle of Joy has dozens of other witticisms that one could cite as well. (The garbled newspaper editorial (on page 135) is too long to quote here, but it’s one of the funniest things that I have ever read).
Daugherty uses Mobile as a “character” in the story; he does not just set the story in Mobile, the city’s people and places are integral to the story. Those who are familiar with Mobile will love the local color. Among many other notables, Daugherty mentions –
– The neighborhoods, including Oakleigh, DeTonti Square, Spring Hill, and West Mobile.
– The Mardi Gras societies, including the Order of the Myths, the Infant Mystics, and the Strikers.
– The private clubs, including the Athelstan Club and the Country Club of Mobile.
While I really enjoyed Isle of Joy, I can nitpick any book. As mentioned, the genealogy thread starts well, but gets a little old once you get the joke. Another issue is that Daugherty attempts to capture the Mobile accent. To do so, he uses phonetic spellings (such as “icek” for “ask” and “inet” for “aunt”). While I know that he wanted to capture the area through the rhythms of its speech, in my opinion, these spellings make the reader work too hard for little reward.
The Great Mobile Novel
To many, Eugene Walter’s The Untidy Pilgrim (1954) is the ultimate Mobile novel. While I like Pilgrim, it’s a conventional story that doesn’t pack much of a punch.
What John Kennedy Toole did for New Orleans in A Confederacy of Dunces, Daugherty does for Mobile with Isle of Joy, as he satirizes Mobile and it’s various “types.” Any literate Mobilian ought to read this one; people from outside the region will enjoy this novel as well.