Sunday, February 15, 2009

Sunday book review

Finished reading a book last night called The Soloist by Steve Lopez. The dust jacket labels it "A lost dream, an unlikely friendship, and the redemptive power of music". It's because of the music that I'm writing it today. That and I already have a review written for Tuesday for an awful book and didn't want to taint this one.

Lopez is a journalist for the L.A. Times. One day he stumbles across an older, homeless black man in a tunnel playing violin. Lopez listens to him and realizes that he's quite a musician. The man, Nathaniel Ayers, is hesitant of Lopez at first but warms to him after a number of visits. Lopez befriends him and discovers that Ayers was a former student of Julliard, the famed music school in New York City.

Lopez is intrigued how someone with so much talent can find himself homeless on the other side of country decades later and begins to write about Ayers. Like so many homeless people, Ayers is a victim of mental illness, in this case paranoid schizophrenia. Lopez's articles in the newspaper begin to bring awareness to the homeless, mental health and substance abuse problems in Los Angeles.

The book arises from these articles and the journey Lopez and Ayers make together as friends over the years. When they first meet, Ayers sleeps on the sidewalk and distrusts everyone around him. Gradually, through the support of Lopez and others, Ayers moves into an apartment near a treatment facility, starts taking music lessons, and the story ends with Ayers being "artist in residence" at another treatment center.

I can't recall a book that brought me to tears as often as this. I have a soft spot for mental health issues and the alternating breakthroughs and frustrations that Lopez and Ayers endure are heartwrenching. Lopez is a terrific journalist, reporting this story and adding all the necessary details. He delves into Lopez's past and visits former classmates and family members. He works with local mental health workers to try and help Ayers and understand how areas such as L.A.'s Skid Row can grow so large. Through it all, Lopez also maintains a great level of humility. His own involvement in the story could easily become the story but he never lets is become so, always keeping the focus on Nathaniel.

The only disappointment of the book to me was the ending. Near the end, Lopez and Ayers have a falling out which results in Lopez, who refers to Ayers as Nathaniel for the first 85-90% of the book, being more formal and distant and referring to him as Mr. Ayers, both in personal interactions and when writing about him. Like any broken friendship, this turn is saddening. Also, this is an ongoing story but, of course, the book has to end. It would be nice to know how Ayers progresses and how Lopez's relationship continues. Perhaps one day there'll be an update. If so, I will definitely read it. This was such a great story.

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