Book Review: The Final Revival of Opal & Nev, the debut novel from Dawnie Walton
by Adam Zemel
The Final Revival of Opal & Nev, the debut novel from Dawnie Walton, sizzles with energy and attitude as it unspools a recognizably American story of self-invention and systemic injustice, unmet expectations and dramatic turns of fortune, the legacy of public trauma and the pressure of society, and the role of complicity in the persecution of the other. In the book, Sunny, a music journalist and the novel’s protagonist, sets out to report a definitive oral history of the moment that claimed her father’s life before she was born––which also happens to be one of the most famous moments in the history of rock and roll: a record label showcase in New York which later becomes known as Altamont East.
At the show, Opal Jewel, “the fashion rebel, the singer/screecher/Afro-punk ancestor, the unapologetically Black feminist,” ruins a Southern Rockin’ labelmate’s Confederate battle flag while performing with her musical partner, the British singer/songwriter Nev Charles (who goes on to have a wildly successful solo career). The ensuing riot leads to the death of their drummer, Sunny’s father. Because she edits a rock magazine, and Opal & Nev are reuniting nearly fifty years later to headline a major musical festival, Sunny decides to interview all the relevant parties for a story about the duo’s legacy.
Those familiar with contemporary pop culture journalism will recognize the shape of Sunny’s reporting: an oral history––in this case recounting the fitful rise, tragic peak, and abrupt dissolution of Opal & Nev, a duo whose fictional star sits somewhere in the firmament of rock and roll near The Velvet Underground & Nico, Nina Simone, and Leonard Cohen. The utter readability of the form disguises the scope and ambition of the novel, which tours the worlds of fashion and rock and roll in 1970s New York while grappling with the commercial, political, and geographic forces shaping the intersection of race and popular music in the United States. By engaging with these ideas, the novel examines the messy tangle of influences, appropriations, and erasures that is the basis of so much of American (popular) culture.
Despite the heady/heavy subject matter, the book goes down smooth like a glass of strawberry Quik from Opal’s childhood kitchen on a hot Detroit day. Like any oral history from James Andrew Miller, or the homepage of Vulture, Opal & Nev is narrated retrospectively through the nostalgic, bitter, and unevenly detailed memories of its characters. These chapters shift points of view every few paragraphs so that the polyphony of voices might converge to provide a thorough account of the whole story. Walton leans hard into this storytelling device to great effect; everyone involved tells their story in their own words, and part of the thrill comes from witnessing the way varying accounts harmonize and clash at different moments in the novel. We are like Sunny, sifting through the old memories and self-mythologies in hopes of discovering the facts.
Presenting as oral history the trials of a fictional musical collaboration from the 1970s so profound and influential that their 2016 reunion headlines a major music festival is a bold premise. How to make the reader believe that Opal and Nev’s music is as important as Lou Reed’s, or that Opal’s fashion was a major influence on the nascent New York punk and disco scenes, when we cannot listen to their records or view the spreads in Vogue? Through Walton’s canny, evocative prose, we hear Opal’s bark and Nev’s croon harmonize over the propulsive session musicians hired for their first record (including Sunny’s father); we see the bold fabrics and theatrical silhouettes that Opal’s best friend/personal stylist, Virgil LaFleur, prepares for her emergence on the 1970s New York scene. Dawnie Walton’s background as a culture journalist is likely a huge asset in this regard, as she is able to draw upon years of experience writing about popular media to render palpable descriptions of moody radio hits and era-defining fashions.
Retrospective narration runs the risk of sapping a story of tension since the characters know how the story ends. The cast of Opal & Nev may have varying and complex relationships with the past, but that can only create so much narrative tension. And this is where Sunny’s story is crucial to the plot: she was traumatized before being born by the same events that elevated Opal & Nev from struggling-toward-success to world-famous overnight. The “Editor’s Note” chapters that form the emotional center of the novel are narrated by Sunny, whose voice is sharp, knowing and wry. Particularly notable is a scene near the middle of the book when Sunny leads a roundtable editorial discussion about the legacy of Opal & Nev, which highlights the generational, racial, and managerial divides that can distort meaningful cultural discourse.
And because Sunny is Black, female, and the first non-white/non-male editor-in-chief of her magazine, she must negotiate the 2016 manifestation of the same tensions, assumptions, and diminishments Opal was forced to contend with in the early ’70s––and which perhaps primed her to provoke The Bond Brothers of Jacksonville, Florida, on the night Sunny’s father was killed.
When the narrator’s father is a drummer, pace matters. While the book is somewhat slow in getting started, by the time the Opal & Nev recording sessions begin around page 100, it is moving at velocity, with only a few baggier moments slowing down the back half. In any case, the reveals and twists that pepper the plot more than make up for any dragging stretches. When the book slows down intentionally, to dwell on Opal’s months spent in Paris, or for Sunny to recount the first time she listened to the Opal & Nev album on which her father appears in a public library at the age of fourteen, the prose is still nimble and attentive.
Opal & Nev is a highbrow rock and roll thriller about the way America’s legacy of racism and white supremacy shapes our culture and stamps itself on individual lives. That a book can expose so much rot yet still make for so much fun to read would make Opal Jewel herself thrill with delight.
Adam Zemel edits the interviews section at The Coachella Review. A fiction student at UC Riverside’s Palm Desert MFA program, his work has appeared in Alma, New Voices, and the Forward