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Monday, May 05, 2008

Book Review: "The Soloist" by Steve Lopez

Steve Lopez once wrote some of the best (and funniest) columns in the history of the Philadelphia Inquirer. The City of Brotherly Love is many things, including a source of characters who just cannot get out of their own way. One of my favorite Lopez columns was when he went to a La Cosa Nostra-frequented barber shop in South Philadelphia asking to get a "mob" haircut. This was at the time that Nicodemo Scarfo and his gang were frequently in the news, and the local wiseguys were wont to be visible wearing their velour sweatsuits and their pompadours. At any rate, Lopez is a very gifted writer, and he now plies his trade at the Los Angeles Times.

I re-connected with Lopez's craft while on a long drive for work that took me through the Pennsylvania suburbs and heard him interviewed on talk radio. The subject was this book and the subject matter of the book, a mentally ill homeless man in Los Angeles named Nathaniel Anthony Ayres, mid-fifties, African American. Lopez saw him playing a two-stringed violin on the streets of L.A., not far from skid row (which is amazingly close to the Times' offices). You see, columnists are always looking for the next story, and what makes writers like Lopez transcend is that they keep themselves on edge, wondering where that next story will come from.

Now, you might ask what would make this story compelling, because, after all, Los Angeles is the homeless capital of the country. What's so special about this man, in his mid-fifties, who has a pretty bad case of paranoid schizophrenia?

Well, the guy went to Juilliard.

For a while.

There's more, too. Mr. Ayres grew up in Cleveland, his parents' marriage broke up, and after the divorce his father moved to L.A. and his mother re-married. Neither parent was able to give him the attention he needed after that, and he dove into his music. Various mentors took a great interest in him, and he made his way to Juilliard with relative ease. Staying there, though, was another story. It was a hyper-competitive place then, an exercise in survival of the fittest, and amidst all that was the Vietnam War, the 60's, and the tough times that went with it on the racial relations front. Amidst all that and his family stuff, Mr. Ayres became unglued. Seriously unglued.

Decades later, Steve Lopez met him on the streets of Los Angeles, his worldly possessions in a shopping cart, his talent and his brain intermittently switching from signs of sanity and brilliance to displays of anger and frustration. Lopez chronicles his relationship with Nathaniel Ayres masterfully, showing the horrors of this awful disease and Lopez's frustrations with the system and his own ability to help someone in need of help. The story -- one of a columnist's spending an inordinate amount of time to help a gifted fellow man, and of a onetime prodigy's struggle with his disease, is most compelling. It's a story of compassion, of struggle, of growth, and improvement -- not just for Nathaniel Ayres, but also for Steve Lopez.

Steve Lopez's gift is that you can almost visualize the interactions between the two men, you can hear them trying to hold a conversation over the traffic that zooms by the tunnel where Ayres lived for a while, you can hear the ramblings of a smart but troubled homeless man, and above all, you can sense the music of both the man and the situation he's in. To mix many metaphors, Steve Lopez painted a picture about a gifted musician -- and, yes, a gifted writer's attempts to help that musician -- with words.

And he did it well.

If you're too busy working, too busy having fun, too busy coaching your kids' teams or too unconnected to the problems of the real world that surrounds you, if you know a family that's struggled with a loved one who once was normal and a switch flipped and all of a sudden everyone got caught up in a neverending drama of unpredictable, destructive behavior, or if you just want to reconnect with your sense of humanity, read this book.

It's a great story by a great writer, and, hopefully, the book will shed light on mental illness and the homeless in a way to spur more of us on to help others.

4 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wonderful book. I heard Steve Lopez talk about Nathniel at our UCLA class, read the book and now think so often about Nathaniel. I wonder if he's havinglonger periods of being "better." I hope so. Thanks.

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Anonymous Buy Cialis said...

This is really funny because a a "mob" haircut is something old fashioned, but he did it because it was fashion that time, by the way it was an incredible column.

11:29 AM  

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