Monday, September 17, 2012

Book review: "The Soloist" by Steve Lopez

Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez was just looking for something he could write about when he stopped on a downtown street corner to listen to a disheveled man playing the violin – and playing it well.

That encounter would lead to a relationship that would transform both men’s lives, and help to shine a light on the world of the mentally ill homeless.

In “The Soloist,” Lopez describes his long and often-turbulent relationship with Nathaniel Ayers, a musician once considered so talented that he trained at Julliard. As Lopez describes, Ayers’ great musical prospects evaporated when mental illness led him to behave so erratically that he lost the support of everyone close to him. Eventually, he ended up sleeping on a street in Los Angeles, and playing beat-up instruments at a noisy intersection.

With writing that is silky smooth, “The Soloist” is an enveloping read.  Lopez puts a lot of his emotions into the story, describing the frustrations of trying to get Ayers, gently, step by step, into social programs that would help him. No step went smoothly, as Ayers resisted even the slightest changes. His mood swings were sometimes explosive, and more than once, Lopez felt close to giving up.  Almost anyone else would have.

The book is more than a story about Ayers. Lopez uses this one person to look at how the homeless and the mentally ill are treated – or not treated – in this country.  While it’s sad to see how many lives are cast aside without anyone caring, it is inspiring to read Lopez’s description of a handful of people who are working against the odds to help this long neglected group.

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