The Soloist

17 May

Friday I finished reading “The Soloist” by Steve Lopez. I’d already seen the movie a few months ago, and when I saw the book on a shelf at a discount store, for only $2, I couldn’t resist. Now that I’ve read it, I want to see the movie again. I thought the movie did a wonderful job portraying Mr. Lopez’s true story. The book chronicles an unlikely friendship between Lopez, who writes columns for the LA Times newspaper, and Mr. Nathaniel Ayers, who lives on the streets of LA. Lopez discovers him one morning while walking to work. He’s playing the cello by a Beethoven statue. Lopez begins writing columns about him. The columns expose Skid Row, the very worst part of LA, a dumping ground for the area’s homeless, a place where prostitution takes place in porta potties in exchange for crack, and residents smack sticks against the pavement at night to ward off rats. The columns expose Nathaniel, a paranoid schizophrenic who is a musical genius. He once studied at Juliard; while there, the break-down came, and mental illness devoured what could have been a glittering musical career. What’s left of it’s now tattered on the streets.  Beethoven is his muse, and music keeps his demons at bay. It anchors him to the world. It’s the only thing that makes sense for him. The city is his orchestra. He likes playing outside; the birds sound like people clapping. Lopez discovers this man who throws him into a world of mental illness he never knew existed. Meanwhile, readers send Nathaniel cellos, violins and a piano. Nathaniel is brilliant when he’s invited to the famous music hall in LA, where he hears a former classmate give a solo performance. He’s sane when he’s talking music. Other times he’s in a rage. His eyes are bloodshot. He’s incoherent, his mind tangled.

I enjoyed this book. I enjoyed learning from Lopez about mental illness and homelessness. I enjoyed reading about the life of a columnist, especially. It’s not glamorous, or at least Lopez doesn’t make it so. Deadlines crash continually; if they’re not falling, like a sledgehammer, they’re about to, in a few minutes, hours or days. Constantly, he’s thinking, “What’s my next column?” His life falls in rhythms to his columns, rather than the opposite. People think he’s an expert on what he writes about, which makes him feel like a fraud. He’s no expert. He’s just a storyteller, and a good one. Lopez questions whether he’s just using Nathaniel or if they’re truly friends. He discovers it’s the latter. What writer hasn’t been through what Lopez went through, feeling like you’ve used someone for a story? I’ve only been a reporter now for about nine months, and even I’ve felt that. Here I am with my questions and my story, and what do they have to lose? They have no reason to trust me, to know that I won’t misquote them or make them sound stupid. I walk away with a notepad full of them, and what are they left with? Hope that it turns out ok, that I won’t hack em to bits. I related on that level. I enjoyed his sparse style, the cleanness of his prose and the unsentimental way he tells his story. It’s raw, gritty and in the end, very moving.

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