Monday, July 21, 2008

Homeless musician's story is also about the columnist who wanted to help

The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music (Putnam, $25.95 hardcover) by Steve Lopez

Book review by Daniel Olivas

In 2001, columnist Steve Lopez moved to the Los Angeles Times after building an award-winning career at respected publications including the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Oakland Tribune, Time magazine and the San Jose Mercury News.

Over the past seven years, Lopez's Times column has made a large and often jagged mark on the City of Angels as he deflates prevaricating politicians, beachfront billionaires, devious developers and anyone else who seems to be causing damage to the city.

One day in 2005, as Lopez was "on foot in downtown Los Angeles, hustling back to the office with another deadline looming," he encountered a homeless man who inspired another column. A homeless man in L.A.? Unusual? No.

But there's an angle that Lopez saw in this potential subject: "He's dressed in rags on a busy downtown street corner, playing Beethoven on a battered violin that looks like it's been pulled from a Dumpster."

This violin-playing homeless man led to a series of much-read columns. In the process, Lopez shook up readers, politicians, musicians and anyone else who has a heart. Why? Well, the man -- Nathaniel Ayers -- had been one of a handful of African-American students at Juilliard, where he studied classical bass, in the 1970s. But mental illness struck, and Ayers eventually spiraled down to the horrendous depths of homelessness in downtown Los Angeles.

Out of these columns comes Lopez's heartbreaking, tough-talking and engrossing book, The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music (Putnam, $25.95 hardcover).

It is impossible not to get caught up in Lopez's attempts to make contact with a man who lives in a bizarre and brutal mix of street life, nonexistent voices and exquisite music. But we also get a glimpse of Lopez's dogged attempts to trace this man's life back to his childhood to understand how this could happen.

As he gets closer to Ayers, Lopez moves from reporter to friend. He decides that he must help Ayers move to a safer existence in a shelter. Lopez's readers also want to help, and many offer mental health advice, while several others actually send new instruments -- violins, cellos and basses -- for Ayers to play.

Eventually, Lopez discovers the Lamp Community, a nonprofit organization that offers shelter for more than 88,000 homeless people in Los Angeles County. In time, Ayers accepts the help of the organization. But progress is painfully slow, in large part because of Ayers' earlier unsuccessful encounters with mental-health professionals.

Ayers is an often-frustrating subject, to say the least: He is prone to ugly verbal outbursts and does not trust living in confined spaces. Several times, Lopez feels ready to wash his hands of the man, but a mix of stubbornness and affection prevents him from abandoning his new friend.

Another fascinating aspect of this narrative is the peek we get of Lopez's life as a newspaperman trying to meet deadlines in an industry suffering from historic restructuring and downsizing. Interesting, too, is the much-tested patience and support that Lopez's wife and daughter offer as he is consumed by the plight of this one man.

Steve Lopez is a consummate columnist who has created a powerful portrait of homelessness and mental illness. All the while, he demonstrates a deep respect and compassion for his subject. This is a potent, riveting and deeply affecting book.

[This review first appeared in the El Paso Times.]


Anonymous said...

What a wonderful and heartwarming story to read, especially after some of the recent news regarding foreclosures, homeless families, and the economy in general.

Thank you for being human, and for caring.

The Wallace Family
Gulf Breeze, FL

Daniel A. Olivas said...

My pleasure. Thank you.

Sustenance Scout said...

Daniel, Thank you so much for reminding me of this book! I'd heard about these two men on NPR a while back and am curious to read the whole story. Hope you're having a terrific summer! K.