In his debut novel Revolver, Evan Schwartz delves into a playground of fiction popular among music lovers, an alternative history of The Beatles and the late, great John Lennon.
From Bryce Zabel’s Once There Was A Way to Larry Kirwan’s Liverpool Fantasy to Danny Boyle’s recent film Yesterday, Lennon and his band have been catalyst for some interesting detours from reality. Schwartz’ Revolver is another – a quasi-mystical spin that rewrites the tragic history we all know too well.
Set in Long Island in the 1970s, Revolver is the story of two high schoolers, a boy and a girl who share a fierce, evolving love of rock ‘n’ roll and each other.
As the book opens, Charlie Mixner is pondering his requisite teen angst with insight provided by Lennon’s 1974 album, Wall and Bridges, and its signature tune, “#9 Dream.” At his school, Charlie is bullied for the scars he carries, purportedly from falling into a fire at this third birthday party. He’s a classic music nerd, one whose concerns over the bullying, his budding love and his parents’ failing marriage are salved by the endless stream of music he dissects like scripture. One such scripture is The Who’s second rock opera, Quadrophenia, which Charlie plays, or at first largely mimes, with a band he forms with a trio of largely instrumentally illiterate friends. He’s also a guy who spends weeks doing a March Madness-styled, round robin competition to determine his favorite all-time band.
Most importantly, Charlie is having persistent dark premonitions about Lennon. It sets him off on a mission to meet and warn the Beatle about an unknown danger he can sense but not quite put his finger on. The signals as to what may come are somehow communicated through sensations in his scars, another thing he can’t quite figure out.
His female counterpart Shayla is another teen afflicted with music mania. In an effort to both proselytize their shared tastes and establish the cred needed to meet Lennon via an interview, they both become writers for their high school paper. Charlie churns out impassioned album and concert reviews, with opinions not always shared or popular with his classmates. Shayla puts her teen angst on display via her poetry in every issue.
The book follows the pair through a couple of years and the many changes in musical styles and favored bands that came fast and furious in the 1970s. They go from The Beatles, Stones and The Who to Bowie’s glam, then Prog and Southern Rock, disco and, ultimately, New Wave and Punk. While Charlie cautiously goes with the changes, Shayla goes full bore as they happen – hanging in denims and halter top with the rowdy Skynyrd boys, then dancing mad to disco in a silky dress and, finally, a punk ethos and threads inspired by The Ramones and Chrissie Hynde.
The duo amiably stalk then ultimately come face-to-face with Lennon, a few times over the course of the book. This includes that critical night in December 1980, which serves as the novel’s climax. But what happens here shall be left to your own reading.
As a Queens, N.Y. native who came of age in 1970s, I can tell you that Schwartz’ take on Long Island and the times is spot-on.
There are tons of fun cameos by folks like The Stray Cats (Charlie’s classmates), Billy Joel, the various concert venues and WLIR-FM, the prime youth taste disseminator in L.I. during the era. And you have to love that the put-upon disco boy character is named Sergio Valente, after the jeans’ brand that was requisite dress for disco lads and lassies back in the day.
Revolver is coming-of-age story with a deep dive into the power of music, especially the role it plays in the emotional lives of young people. It is set in and gives a new appreciation to the 1970s, one of rock music’s most creative, change-filled and underrated decades. It’s a book that will have young and old alike heading to Spotify (or their dusty vinyl) to enjoy the many breakthrough albums that dress Schwartz’ imaginative and most enjoyable literary fantasy.