The Final Revival of Opal & Nev” by debut author Dawnie Walton is the type of novel that grabs you no matter your interests: music, art, the 1970s, culture and the progress of civil rights through the decades. The book is constructed as an oral history, with a premise as complex as its characters. Fictional cult classic ’70s punk rock band Opal & Nev is coming together for a 2016 reunion show and to tease the possibility of a tour. Music journalist Sunny Shelton is tasked with writing the band’s biography, potentially because her father used to play for them — and was even killed at an event where they were playing. Underneath that, Sunny has a deeper secret: Opal Jones had a love affair with her father. Despite all of this, Sunny is determined to provide a fair and balanced look at this band that affected so many people, including her.
“The Final Revival” forces readers to reckon with how we view pivotal moments in history and how tragic and personal moments can be turned into flashpoints that are discussed but not fully understood. As Sunny gets to the bottom of what happened to her father that tragic day, everything jolts into a new perspective.
Walton richly captures the way two people’s lives can intertwine yet catapult far away from each other due to privilege and circumstances. More than anything, the interviews with people who make up their lives, such as managers, assistants, friends, other musicians and fans, show the disparity between Opal and Nev more than anything else. Every piece of the past divulged through this oral history framework drives the plot and characterization.
Opal is a Grace Jones-esque woman. She is a Black woman who dared to speak out and never stopped. She is tall, dark-skinned and bald and commands all the space in the room, and is given the space to do so on page.
Nev is a quirky white man who shifts away from the punk scene they started and toward folksy music. He is a bit David Bowie and a bit Paul McCartney, with flaming red hair, a wild sense of humor and an easy demeanor.
But their musical partnership cannot withstand the events of the Riverside Showcase, and we see them diverge. Opal remains as political as ever while trying to discover herself, as Nev loses himself to addiction.
The raw, internal world of Opal is put on display — from her childhood in Detroit and tense relationship with her religious sister to a James Baldwin-like self-exploration in Paris.
Walton is an expert at references. She manages to transport readers to an early-to-mid ’70s that doesn’t get discussed much: the punk scene and how Black culture influenced everything around it. Music lovers will appreciate the subtle references to bands like Fleetwood Mac and Queen.
We’re taken to the private art parties of Andy Warhol and runway shows that, for the first time, featured a majority of Black models, and shown how the Black Panther Party provided private protection to artists on tours when their managers wouldn’t spring for extra security. Walton combines the fictional story of Opal & Nev with true and untold aspects of the racialized pop culture that endured, and continue to endure, in post-Civil Rights America. Walton’s infused details culminate in the story’s Riverside Showcase disaster, which affected countless lives.
Walton does an exquisite job weaving together the pains of loss and knowledge to show the real America and how only certain moments are cast as significant and remembered by most storytellers. She unravels the lead-up to Opal and Nev’s “Final Revival” in a piece of literature that is perfectly timed to respond to where we are now as a country. Walton explores people’s tendencies to make bad decisions and what we choose to do with regrets and the secrets we keep.
On a much more personal note, “The Final Revival of Opal & Nev” spoke to me as a Black woman who’s always been invested in music and felt a little “weird” growing up. Opal’s strangeness becomes her strength, and it allows her to prevail beyond society’s attempts to keep her down. Too often in the media we see Black women boxed in, defined by one singular genre or experience. Walton gives an unflinching look at how colorism, texturism and the racism of society bends and changes, and all the insidious ways it can poison relationships as well. Whether between Opal and her fairer-skinned sister, her manager or even her bandmates, words can cut like a knife if the speaker is paying enough attention to notice or the recipient lets themselves feel it.
Opal is constantly devalued by the people around her or compared to her white, male former colleague, but she remains vibrant and staunch in her beliefs. And that is what makes women like Opal Jones so valuable. Or in real life: Grace Jones, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Tina Turner, Janelle Monae, Brittany Howard, Janet Jackson, Meshell Ndegeocello and so many more I cannot fit in this review.
“The Final Revival of Opal & Nev” has strong characterizations that work in an oral history format and elevate it to a level that captures America at its core, even while it revolves around the story of this ahead-of-its-time punk band. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
Leinani Lucas is a millennial who enjoys reading, writing and exploring the Pacific Northwest with her friends. Leinani can be found on Twitter @LeinaniLucas, when she’s not telling stories or singing loudly in the car.
Read more of the Apr. 14-20, 2021 issue.