TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, has a review of the new novel "The Final Revival Of Opal & Nev," which is set in the rock music world. It's the first novel by Dawnie Walton, who has worked as an editor at magazines like Essence, Entertainment Weekly and Life. Maureen says all the hype that heralded this novel is justified.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: I knew from all the buzz about "The Final Revival Of Opal & Nev" that it's a work of fiction by first time novelist Dawnie Walton. But after I started her book, I had to stop and double check to make sure that this wasn't a true account of a real-life rock duo from the 1970s. That's how authentic this odd novel feels, composed as it is out of a pandamonium of fictional interviews, footnotes, talk show transcripts, letters and editor's notes.
To say that "The Final Revival Of Opal & Nev" is a sly simulacrum of a rock oral history is to acknowledge only the most obvious of this novel's achievements. Walton aspires to so much more in this story about music, race and family secrets that spans five decades, and all the glitzy quick-change narrative styles don't detract attention from the core emotional power of her story. I tell you, even many of the fake footnotes in this novel are moving.
The premise of "The Final Revival Of Opal & Nev" is this. In 2015, a journalist named Sunny Curtis becomes the first African American editor-in-chief of a Rolling Stone-type magazine. Sunny decides that her first big get will be a book-length interview with Opal Jewel and Nev Charles. They're an interracial rock duo who struck it big in the early '70s and were immortalized by a photograph taken of them after a racially fueled riot broke out at one of their performances. Afterwards, Opal, who's African American, naturally bald and hailed in her prime as an intergalactic showstopper along the lines of Tina Turner and Merry Clayton, briefly became a punk icon and then faded from view. Nev, who's white and British, has gone on to enjoy a long career.
Sunny's interest, particularly in Opal's story, turns out to be personal. Her father, Jimmy Curtis, was a drummer who had an affair with Opal. He was killed during that infamous concert when fighting broke out between audience members and the Hells Angels-type fans of a Southern-fried rock group called the Bond Brothers who were also performing that night. The Bond Brothers had been waving a Confederate flag around backstage, and a fed-up Opal managed to slip the flag under her dress and tie Old Dixie, as she puts it, the last place a cracker would come looking for it. Once Opal and Nev went onstage, the Bond Brothers fans' racist heckling escalated, and Opal flipped her costume up so that, as she says, they could all see exactly what I thought about them and all their hate. If you know your rock history, the chaos that results sounds a lot like the 1969 Rolling Stones concert at Altamont.
Sunny pieces together the tale of that pivotal concert and the shameful secret that's been hidden at the heart of it for decades through interviews with a chorus of characters. They range from one of the surviving Bond Brothers to a now-70-year-old woman who worked as a receptionist at Opal and Nev's old record company. Walton clearly has a blast here, giving distinctive voices and backstories to the throng that populates this novel, but it's Opal who effortlessly casts everyone else into a backup role. Here she is talking to Sunny about growing up in 1960s Detroit.
(Reading) Let me stop you before you ask the inevitable question, she tells Sunny, because even with you, I know it's close. It's right there, dancing a damn polka on the tip of your tongue. You journalists would say this to me all the time. Opal Jewel, what gave you such extraordinary confidence? I understand that what people are really trying to ask me is this. How in the world did a woman so Black and so ugly manage to believe she could be somebody?
At the end of that interview, the larger-than-life Opal tells Sunny that with all the cards stacked against her, she realized she had nothing to lose or, as she puts it, there was no escape to be had anywhere by being so damn regular.
"The Final Revival Of Opal & Nev" is itself anything but regular. A deep dive into the recent past, it also simultaneously manages to be a rumination on up-to-the-minute themes like cultural appropriation in music and the limits of white allyship. It's the kind of overwhelming novel that, like a polyphonic double album back in the day, readers might want to experience more than once to let all the notes sink in.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Final Revival Of Opal & Nev" by Dawnie Walton.
Tomorrow, I'll talk with journalist Patrick Radden Keefe, author of the new book "Empire Of Pain: The Secret History Of The Sackler Dynasty." It's an investigation into the Sackler family and its sometimes deceptive practices. The Sacklers own Purdue Pharma, the company that manufactures and sells OxyContin, which helped create the opioid epidemic. I hope you'll join us.
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GROSS: Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. I'm Terry Gross.
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