This account of a fictitious popular interracial music duo begins in the 1970s and ends with their revival in 2016 and is a tour de force. Opal and Nev are an unlikely twosome; when they met, Opal was an amateur with barely any experience and Nev had recently arrived from Britain with more expectations than promise in his musical ambitions. The story is told from the vantage point a year or so before the planned revival. It is told by a young Black woman with a personal connection to the story, the editor-in-chief of an influential music magazine. She recounts interviews with everyone involved in the story for the book she is writing using the voice or manuscript of each one, as well as her own telling of the backstories. This approach kept my head spinning, but was done brilliantly.
Opal and Nev had a single appearance in a notable venue and it was a disaster, resulting in the death of a band member, Jimmy, a Black man beaten to death by Southern racists. And Jimmy was the father of Sunny, the narrator/writer of the book who was born just after Jimmy was killed. Jimmy was married, but had a brief intense thing with Opal. See what I mean about head-spinning?
The events surrounding their disastrous performance and subsequent brief time working together are recounted through such devices as a “Partial Transcript from Opal & Nev’s First Television Interview, the Dick Cavett Show….” The author uses footnotes that show up at the end of chapters for explanations. Here’s an example:
I. Media outlets frequently compared what happened at Rivington Showcase to the violence at 1969’s Altamont Free Concert. During The Rolling Stones’ set at that Northern California disaster, a high and armed 18-year old Black man named Meredith Hunter was fatally stabbed and stomped by members of the Hells Angels, who’d been vicious in their role as concert security and whom according to some, had been paid in $500 worth of beer.
Many minor characters recount in a paragraph or two their take on some aspect of Opal & Nev. One brief statement of a current day actual person to convey who Opal was and her long term influence was made by “Questlove, Drummer, DJ, Entrepreneur.” The fictional statement was made by the man who most recently directed that wonderful documentary Summer of Love, of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, music of Opal’s era. I tell you, this is an amazing book.
I look forward to more fiction from Dawnie Walton. She is a former editor of Essence and in her acknowledgements, wrote about her time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Dawnie Walton, The Final Revival of Opal & Nev, 37 Ink/Simon and Schuster, 2021, 360 pages (I read the kindle version).