Wednesday, April 15, 2009

THE SOLOIST - Steve Lopez

The Soloist is the true story of Steve Lopez's experience with a homeless, schizophrenic who also happens to be an amazingly talented musician on the streets of Los Angeles . Steve Lopez, a journalist with the L.A. Times, met Nathanial Ayers on Skid Row in L.A. Lopez was looking for a story for his newspaper column, and Ayers was a homeless man playing a violin, quite well, with only two strings. As Lopez spoke to Ayers a reference was made to Julliard, so Lopez began investigating. He was initially told no one named Nathanial Ayers had attended Julliard, but the information was later corrected. A Nathanial Ayers actually did attend for two years in the 70s before having to leave for "personal" reasons. Those "personal reasons" were the onset of schizophrenia. What started out as a mere story concept grew in to much more than Lopez ever imagined. This is the story of their friendship.

The Soloist is presently a movie starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey, Jr. I have not seen the movie so I cannot comment on the depiction of the story through the film. But the book is a rather amazing look at schizophrenia from a close "outsiders" experience. I word that as such because Lopez never really seems to be able to get completely "inside" with Ayers. There will always be a part of Ayers' world that Lopez will never have access to. They are definitely friends, but as Lopez illustrations in this passage, time with Ayers isn't always grounded:

He plays for awhile, we talk for a while, an experience that's like dropping in on a dream. Nathanial takes nonsensical flights, doing figure eights through unrelated topics. God, the Cleveland Browns, he mysteries of air travel and the glory of Beethoven. He keeps coming back to music. His life's purpose, it seems, is to arrange the notes that lie scattered in his head.

Lopez's writing is filled with musical language like that illustrated in this passage. And he says a lot through those words, but I also find myself wanting more of the story. To be fair, this is probably due to my love of the fiction story where there is very little gap. But The Soloist is composed more like a series of newspaper columns tacked together in sequential order. Because both men are so fascinating, I want to know more about each of them; I want to know about the time that occurs in between those columns.

The story takes the reader through an array of emotions. There is happiness at successes, fear and heartbreak at failures, mortification at the condition that exists for homeless people TODAY on our very streets, and elation at the generosity that people will show one another. There is also an awareness of a disease that is debilitating and unpredictable and even controversial, at least the issues connected to the disease are controversial.

This is not a book that is full of action, moving you to fly through the pages. Instead it is a book full of humanity that makes you savor each and every word. Lopez says, "From paranoia to poetry, sirens to violins, madness to genius. Nathanial's life is opera." Lopez has created the sheet music for that opera and it is titled The Soloist.


Molly April 15, 2009 at 6:32 AM  

Your review instantly reminded of the mid 1980s when I lived in NYC. There was man - not homeless nor schizophrenic - who periodically played his violin at Grand Central Station. It was absolutely beautiful music - and the acoustics of the high ceilings allowed the music to hang in the air. He always brought a smile to tired, weary commuters' faces through his Mozart.

I need to read this book!

Corey Wilde April 15, 2009 at 8:09 AM  

I hadn't seen the book but I've seen the trailer for the film and it does look like an intriguing story. Nice job on the review.

le0pard13 April 15, 2009 at 1:47 PM  

This is story that is familiar to those who've kept track of this unique friendship in Lopez's column here in L.A. I had heard that the author turned it into a book. The movie was supposed to come out last Fall, but the studio choose to delay it till this Spring. I think they thought it would get lost among those being released for Oscar contention. Either way, I'm looking forward to seeing this. Great review, Jen.

Jen April 28, 2009 at 12:12 PM  

I saw a lot of copies of this book for sale at the FOB, but I was surprised that Steve Lopez wasn't there...given that he's an L.A. Times columnist and all.

Molly, hope you enjoy the book!

Coffee Maker April 30, 2009 at 1:36 AM  

Amazing what dedicated journalism can bring about...

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