In writing The Soloist, the Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez has achieved the kind of useful act he writes about wanting and not finding in three decades of newspaper work:
After 30 years of fulminating about this or that, always from a safe distance and usually to no avail, I want something more, even if it involves the risk of failure. It’s not just a journalistic calculation, but a matter of curiosity and a desire for meaning.
The Soloist grew out of a piece of street reporting in 2005 that led to a column, then a series of columns, then to this book, and later this year, a movie starring Jamie Foxx, scheduled for release in November. It is the story of Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, a middle-aged, black homeless man living in the tunnels and sidewalks of Los Angeles’ Skid Row. Lopez first encounters him playing a beat-up violin with only two working strings on a street corner near the newspaper office, and is intrigued.
He soon discovers that Ayers is more than a busker with a bent for Beethoven. He’s a former student at New York’s Juilliard School, a genuine talent who had studied double bass at the prestigious conservatory before developing paranoid schizophrenia and leaving the school in 1972. He endured years of hospitalizations and treatments back home in Cleveland before heading to the streets of Southern California in 2000 after the death of his mother because that’s where Ayers thought his father, who abandoned the family years ago,. was living.
Lopez discovers all this as he digs into the past of the man he is soon calling Nathaniel, and for whom he begins to feel a sense of personal responsibility as well as dreams of getting him off the streets and into some kind of medical attention that will allow him to stabilize. He learns the hard way that it isn’t that simple, and that the mental health professionals he consults who advise the patience of Job are telling the truth.
The Soloist is about a talented kid from a disadvantaged background whose promising career is cut off by mental illness; about a newspaperman questioning his own career at a time of maximum stress for the industry; and indirectly about the lack of services our country provides for psychiatric patients without means. It is written in the simple-and-direct style of a good metro column, and it is painfully honest about Lopez’s conflicted motives as well as his neophyte understanding of mental-health issues.
Lopez’s first column about Nathaniel (which can be seen here) provoked a huge reader response that included donations of instruments , which Lopez decides should be stored at the Lamp Community, a charity that works with the mentally ill homeless. This is the columnist’s way of trying to sneak Nathaniel into a place where he could at least have a roof over his head, but Nathaniel wants nothing to do with it, and he explains why in a way that shows just what Lopez is up against:
“..I don’t need the hassles I’d have to deal with going all the way over there with all of that nonsense. This isn’t Cleveland, Ohio. It’s a Beethoven town that’s doesn’t have all of that snow and ice. Los Angeles Times. Roman Gabriel. Jackie Robinson. I like it right here in the tunnels, where I can play all day and nobody’s going to bother me.”
Still, it doesn’t take long for Lopez to get completely involved in trying to help Nathaniel, at first with the idea that he can simply be plucked from the streets and whisked away to treatment and recovery. He sets up opportunities for Nathaniel to attend Los Angeles Philharmonic rehearsals at Disney Hall, he invites him to his house — where he lives with his wife and 2-year-old daughter — for Easter brunch, and talks Lamp officials into setting a room aside in a renovation project for a music studio that Nathaniel can use.
But it’s a slow process, and it’s clear that the best thing Lopez is doing for Nathaniel is befriending him, even when the columnist wants nothing more than a quick, simple answer. Lopez raises interesting questions about the character of Nathaniel’s illness, implying very strongly that he believes the times Nathaniel grew up in — the late 1960s, a time when black American societal anger was at a peak — and the uniquely unforgiving atmosphere prevalent at Juilliard in the early 1970s had something to do with it.
To a non-expert like me, that seems plausible, and at least it suggests how complex each individual case of mental illness is: How much of a malady caused by a chemical imbalance can be aggravated by certain stresses? Is it possible, as one doctor here suggests, that Lopez’s friendship is literally improving Nathaniel’s chemical balances?
Nathaniel comes off in The Soloist as profoundly troubled but also terrifically ambitious. He has lost none of the resoluteness he must have needed to win a scholarship at Juilliard in the first place, and he’s something of a snob about his favorite music. He loves nothing so much as working on his music, and he can literally be sent into raptures at hearing the Sibelius Second or the Tchaikovsky Serenade for Strings.
But he is also deeply angry and intolerant about things that bother him, such as cigarette smokers, and when towards the end of the book he erupts in rage at Lopez, whom he thinks is trying to force him into a hospital, it comes with a sense of inevitability. Thereafter, Lopez no longer calls him Nathaniel but Mr. Ayers, a choice that makes sense from a personal standpoint for him, but which is jarring to read and ultimately unnecessary. By this point, journalistic objectivity is nowhere to be found, and a book that is basically about a friendship doesn’t do itself any favors by trying to reclaim long-lost ground.
Steve Lopez has done a fine thing for his community by taking a personal interest in one of its ignored members, and a finer thing still for his country by drawing attention to our critical lack of decent health care for the mentally ill. He has also done some good for his profession by showing just how important good, professional journalists are for the health of civic society. This is a story that literally would not have been told without the dedication of one man, and already that work has paid off in ways such as increased donations for groups such as the Lamp.
Lopez has been accused of exploiting an unfortunate person’s suffering for personal gain, and while The Soloist stands to be lucrative for him, you can’t read the book and impute malign motives to him. Lopez simply doesn’t come across as a calculating person, and a note in the front of the book indicates that a portion of royalties and other profits from the book are being set aside for Nathaniel’s benefit.
That’s quite an achievement from something that began as a way to meet a deadline, and I’m sure this story, which already has had positive effects, has more good to do in the years to come.
(The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music, is published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, and is a brisk-reading 275 pages. The book jacket price is $25.95.