The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music Paperback – Sep 30 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Scurrying back to his office one day, Lopez, a columnist for the L.A. Times, is stopped short by the ethereal strains of a violin. Searching for the sound, he spots a homeless man coaxing those beautiful sounds from a battered two-string violin. When the man finishes, Lopez compliments him briefly and rushes off to write about his newfound subject, Nathaniel Ayers, the homeless violinist. Over the next few days, Lopez discovers that Nathaniel was once a promising classical bass student at Juilliard, but that various pressures—including being one of a few African-American students and mounting schizophrenia—caused him to drop out. Enlisting the help of doctors, mental health professionals and professional musicians, Lopez attempts to help Nathaniel move off Skid Row, regain his dignity, develop his musical talent and free himself of the demons induced by the schizophrenia (at one point, Lopez arranges to have Ayers take cello lessons with a cellist from the L.A. Symphony). Throughout, Lopez endures disappointments and setbacks with Nathaniel's case, questions his own motives for helping his friend and acknowledges that Nathaniel has taught him about courage and humanity. With self-effacing humor, fast-paced yet elegant prose and unsparing honesty, Lopez tells an inspiring story of heartbreak and hope. (Apr.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
"Lopez is a terrific reporter. The Soloist is poignant, wise, and funny."
-Sylvia Nasar, author of A Beautiful Mind
"A heartbreaking, yet ultimately hopeful, read."
"An utterly compelling tale."
-Pete Earley, author of Crazy: A Father's Search Through America's Mental Health Madness
"With self-effacing humor, fast-paced yet elegant prose, and unsparing honesty, Lopez tells an inspiring story of heartbreak and hope."
-Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"Compelling and gruffly tender...Lopez deserves congratulations for being the one person who did not avert his eyes and walk past the grubby man with the violin."
-Edward Humes, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist writing for the Los Angeles Times
Top Customer Reviews
In a process that takes time, Steve and Nathaniel become friends and Steve does a great deal to find a "cure" for his new friend and finds it frustrating that Nathaniel does not get better to a degree that Steve wants him to.
This book teaches that even though the paranoid schizophrenic may never be cured, a difference can still be made in their lives. It is not about making everything one hundred percent better, it is about small changes and providing a safe place for people to deal with their challenges. A fascinating read that has taught me to have more compassion towards people with mental illness and the importance of understanding that small changes are important and should not be under valued.
I have yet to actually sit down and read it cover from cover, but after reading three disjoint chapters the book is an instant hit with me. His very personal, yet thorough writing style makes you want to continue on to learn more about Mr. Ayers and Mr. Lopez. I found myself kinda cheering for Mr. Lopez's quest to help Mr. Ayers at one point. Definitely a worth read if you're into human interest stories. It's well written.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Steve Lopez, a reporter for the LA Times, accidently hears violin music coming, apparently from nowhere. When he investigates he finds Nathaniel, an obviously down and out and homeless individual playing what is essentially a broken instrument. Intrigued, Steve Lopez becomes wrapped up in a mission to lift Nathaniel out of his obvious difficulties. Steve learns that Nathaniel was a former Juilliard student and a gifted musician. He was also suffering from mental illness (schizophrenia) leaving him basically disfunctional.
Throughout The Soloist the reader rides heavy seas with highs full of hope and then lows filled with disappointment and dispare. Through Nathaniel's story we see the value of the human spirit. Through the actions of Steve Lopez we see that a simple act of kindness and humanity is never wasted, regardless of our motives.
Steve Lopez is a wonderful writer and his story is worth your time to read.
Ayers, in his mid-50s, is a Julliard-trained bass player whose future as a musician crashed and burned when he suffered a psychotic breakdown midway through his studies in the early 1970s. The crack-up was probably prompted by the intensely competitive Julliard atmosphere, but also by the stressful fact that Ayers was a black student on a nearly all-white campus. His professors thought him brilliant. But with the onset of mental illness (later diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia), Ayers dropped out of sight. Years later, he wound up in Los Angeles, discovered the statue of Beethoven (his musical hero), and settled down to a life in the streets where he serenaded passing traffic on a battered, two-stringed violin. Music was the abiding passion that kept him grounded. Music was the catalyst that brought beauty and peace to his frequently confused and always fragile world.
One day Steve Lopez, columnist for the "L.A. Times" and an engaging, insightful author, heard Ayers playing. Sensing a column topic, he struck up an acquaintance. The acquaintance unexpectedly blossomed into a friendship, and The Soloist is the story of that friendship. Lopez's sensitive memoir spotlights the disorientation of schizophrenia, the perils of living on the streets, and the difficulty in achieving recovery. But in telling Ayers' story, Lopez also reminds us that the mentally ill and the homeless possess dignity, a fierce need for autonomy, and a hunger for meaning and beauty in their lives. In the process, Lopez also has some telling things to say about the scandalous fact that most major U.S. cities contain Skid Rows in which the most vulnerable of our citizens are segregated; some much-needed observations, given our pharmaceutical-crazy, quick-cure ethos, about patience, respect, and compassion when it comes to therapy (his mentor in this regard is Dr. Mark Ragins, a genuine pioneer in recovery therapy); and some extraordinarily important things to say about the redemptive power of music.
Lopez's memoir of his friendship with Ayers never falls into a feel-good sentimentality. Ayers may heal to a certain extent, but it's unlikely that he'll ever recover and he certainly has his bad, disoriented, full-of-rage days. As Lopez learned, progress in treating mental illness is never linear. But Ayers now lives in an apartment instead of on the street; he's happily making music on a variety of instruments in his own studio; and he knows that he's loved. Lopez, in turn, confesses that he frequently felt burdened, helpless, frustrated, and on one occasion when Ayers melted down, betrayed. But he also discovered that his friendship with Ayers enriched him: "I know that through [Ayers'] courage and humility and faith in the power of art--through his very ability to find happiness and purpose--he has awakened something in me...it's not a stretch to say that this man I hoped to save has done as much for me as I have for him" (p. 268).
A magnificent story about two really quite extraordinary men. Highly, unreservedly, recommended.
This beautifully penned book by Steve Lopez, Ayers friend and one of his many male mentors, proves that Humpty-Dumpty could not be put back together again. That is to say, that his shattered family circle could not be squared -- at least not within the parameters of the known range of human psychology.
In a desperate life-long search for his father, who after the divorce moved to Las Vegas to become a garbage truck driver, Mr. Ayers bounced from one surrogate father to another until he managed to stumble upon his life calling: classical music. Through a desire to please, an intense commitment and discipline to music, Ayers became not just an average musician, but one hailed as a talented emerging world-class child prodigy. These attributes catapulted him into Julliard on a music scholarship in the same class and orchestra as the famous cellist Yo yo Ma. However, the pressures of the family breakup, Ayers own fragile mental makeup, and the steep competition at Juilliard took its toll and eventually proved too much for the tenuously held together psychological threads of Nathaniel Ayers. He had a complete mental breakdown, was carted off to Bellevue, forever cutting short prospects for a successful music career.
Diagnosed as a full-fledged schizophrenic, Ayers was now broke but on his own, headed westward ever more desperately in search of his father, who like his mother, had by now remarried into families with stepchildren. Since, Nathaniel did not fit into either of the new family schemes, he drifted further westward still landing rock bottom on skid row in Los Angeles at the foot of the Beethoven statue, the last and ultimate of his surrogate fathers.
The story begins when Ayers meets his guardian angel, the author, Steve Lopez, who knows a good story is staring him in the face when he sees a tattered homeless black man sensitively playing Mozart and Beethoven in the downtown LA subway tunnel. A shaky and tenuous friendship is struck in which Lopez takes Ayers on as a lifetime humanitarian project. Both men are immensely enriched by the friendship: Ayers in part recovers some of his missed dreams and gets pulled in off the streets; Lopez learns about classical music, about the horrors of America's embarrassing mental health situation, and more importantly, finds his own humanity and soul.
Altogether this is a beautifully told story without the fakery of a normal American melodrama. I can't wait to see the movie. Five Stars
Newspaper columnist hurries back to the office. On the way, he sees a middle-aged African-American man, in rags, playing Beethoven on a shabby violin. Could that be a story?
A few weeks later, the journalist returns.
This time he notices that the violin has only two strings.
The violinist is philosophical about that. These things happen when you're broke, he says --- you get used to doing without, you play the best you can.
And what about the names he's scrawled, with a rock, on the pavement?
Oh. Those. My Juilliard classmates.
Now Steve Lopez, ace columnist for the Los Angeles Times, has the makings of 800 great words. This is like a genius tumbling from Harvard to hobo --- how did Nathaniel Ayers get here? And then, of course, how will the attention that Lopez lavishes on Ayers, in his columns and in their conversations, turn his life around?
That's the start of a decent book. But it's not this one. For after the first LA Times story produces a massive reader response --- including gifts of stringed instruments --- the idea of a "second chance" becomes important to Lopez and Ayers' newfound fans. After all, that's the American way. You go out there an unknown, you come back as American Idol. Cue the applause, spare us the complications.
But at the center of this book is mental illness, which is, for Ayers, deep and seemingly intractable. He snapped at Juilliard, had treatment, then both fell between the cracks and wanted to --- he refuses therapy or medication, finding peace only in playing classical music near a statue of Beethoven.
Steve Lopez walks into a swinging door when he befriends Nathaniel Ayers. Lopez has a wife and kids and a career that runs on adrenaline; to be with Ayers, he must surrender to the emotional and intellectual swings of a crazy person. Is Ayers getting better with attention? Will it change him to meet his Juilliard classmate, Yo-Yo Ma? And, at the bottom line, will he ever decide that thieves and government agents won't rip him off if he moves into an apartment??
Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr. are in the movie; no way would Tom Cruise volunteer for the role of Steve Lopez. Cruise apparently believes --- as does the father of Nathaniel Ayers --- that mental illness is a choice and that therapy and medication merely mask the problem. In these pages, Lopez finds himself dealing with a more complex reality: People as damaged as Nathaniel Ayers do better with care and therapy, and then they may well do worse. There's no straight line. And as for total healing, don't hold your breath.
But something else is at play here, and as Lopez tells the story of an unlikely friendship, I came to see why readers fall in love with this book. It's something simple, and, as a result, extremely moving. It is the power simply of noticing another person, and caring, and continuing to care.
"Relationship is primary," a doctor tells Lopez. "It is possible to cause seemingly biochemical changes through human emotional involvement. You literally have changed his chemistry by being his friend."
That cuts both ways; "The Soloist" is also the story of the biochemical changes that friendship with Nathaniel Ayers forge in Steve Lopez. If you are open to this book, you may find yourself veering off your own well-traveled brain pathways into fresh territory. That's a big dividend from 270 pages you can read in an evening.