Steve Lopez, metro columnist for The Los Angeles Times, was walking around downtown one day when he saw a shabbily dressed homeless man serenely playing Beethoven on his battered violin at a street corner. He was intrigued -- and, of course, looking for column material. "Violin man. It's got potential," Lopez recalls thinking in his book about the relationship that resulted from that encounter, The Soloist.
It took some time, but Lopez got that column, as well as quite a few others concerning the life of Nathaniel Ayers, a troubled but gifted African-American man whose years studying bass at New York's prestigious Juilliard School were cut short decades ago by schizophrenia. Ever since, as Ayers had descended into the sorrowful madness that is Los Angeles' Skid Row, he clung to Classical music as a love.
The Soloist is about the friendship that developed between Ayers and Lopez during all this. But it's not a simple, feel-good story about a triumph. Nor, for that matter, is it a tragic narrative. Mental illness doesn't allow for such simple trajectories.
It's often heartbreaking, but also resiliently, cautiously optimistic. And, against all odds, frequently beautiful.
Ayers' relationship to his music has an egoless, mystical intensity. He's right out of one of Oliver Sacks' stories about the mysteries of the human condition. The friendship produces marked, remarkable improvement in Ayers' condition. But repeatedly something happens to trigger Ayers' sickness just when Lopez and others believe he has made a breakthrough. And when that happens, he goes into a terrifying, bullying rage.
The Soloist shows what has made Lopez, who is in his early fifties, such a successful columnist. He goes beyond a merely conversational tone, itself a gift, into the realm of the confessional. As such, he brings the reader into his own tangled feelings and ideas as he discovers the layers of history that have made Nathaniel who he is.