Strictly from a plot standpoint, this is a novel about two disastrous rock music gigs, 45 years apart. The first half of the book leads up to something called the “Rivington Showcase,” and, to Walton’s credit, though she lays the foreshadowing on thick, her evocation of that night’s events is as shocking as it is absolutely riveting.
The novel takes a sharp left turn at the end of part one (which I did not see coming, but instantly believed). The second half builds up to the (fictional) Derringdo Festival in 2016, and this climax is altogether of a different sort than the first.
Here’s the setup: Nev Charles, white, English, naïve, and impulsive, comes to the US in 1970 with the fixed idea of finding a Black female vocalist to add contrast to his first album (said album being contracted to the small and sleazy Rivington label). After a lengthy search, he discovers Opal Jewel (nee Robinson) singing at an amateur night in Detroit. He convinces her to throw in with him and move to New York. The session drummer on their record, Jimmy Curtis, also Black, and ten years older than Opal, begins an affair with her, despite the fact that Jimmy’s wife is pregnant.
All of this background comes with the perspective of the 2010s, delivered as an oral history with multiple, intercut eyewitness accounts. This oral history is edited by a young Black woman whose professional name is S. Sunny Shelton, but who is in fact the daughter of drummer Jimmy Curtis and his wife. Because Opal is notoriously close-mouthed, and Nev doesn’t give interviews at all, this project, in which Sunny is so deeply invested, is in trouble from the start.
Walton does a stunning job of giving each of the players an appropriate and convincing voice. Her choice of British vocabulary for Nev is note-perfect, down to such fine points as him saying “meant to” rather than “supposed to,” “ring” instead of “call,” and includes “chuffed” and “panto.” Opal fuses a sophisticated vocabulary to street grammar, making her speeches unmistakably her own. And, especially in the second half, Sunny’s “Editor’s Notes” get longer and more personal and begin to overshadow the interviews.
At various times the book reads like non-fiction–the music history is reliably accurate, the industry bigshots and hit records namechecked with authority. At times it feels a bit like last year’s DAISY JONES & THE SIX by Taylor Jenkins Reid, a little too smooth and superficial. The descriptions of the music got a bit impressionistic for me at times, as if they’d snuck in from a lesser novel. But page by page, Walton’s true purpose becomes increasingly clear. Though she obviously loves music, she is here to talk about racism of the most persistent and virulent kind, racism that destroyed the Rivington Showcase in 1971 and that rises again, with ugly inevitability, at the Derringdo Festival.
If OPAL & NEV feels too accomplished to be a debut novel, it may be because Walton was nearly 40 by the time she began it, still young enough to conjure Sunny’s youthful passion, but experienced enough to put power into Opal’s disillusionment and rage. This is one of the best music novels I’ve read.