The Soloist is the retelling of Steve Lopez’ relationship with Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, a homeless musical prodigy whom Lopez meets while out riding his bike in Los Angeles. Lopez is immediately amazed by Ayers abilities, especially seeing that he is playing well on a two-string violin. He begins to write about Ayers in his column at the L.A. Times. Through his columns, readers send him instruments for Ayers to play.
Lopez explains in his book that he strived hard to understand Ayers’ situation as he struggles with schizophrenia, a mental disorder that caused him to quit Julliard and live on the streets. Lopez’s column and Lopez’s own networking gave Ayers some of the help that he needed to get off the streets and get back his dignity through music. For Lopez, the most surprising aspect to his relationship with Ayers is that while he started out wanting to help Ayers he realized quickly that they had a lot to learn from each other.
Steve Lopez truly does tell a compelling story of an amazing man who would likely be on par with Yo-Yo Ma if it weren’t for a debilitating mental disorder. It seems that Lopez discovers through the process of helping Nathaniel that our desire to simply put a Band-Aid on certain sad situations or throw some money at the uglier side of life doesn’t always work and often makes things worse. From personal experience, Lopez has learned that misunderstanding is one of the main roadblocks for people getting the help that others are trying to give. By telling the story of Ayers, Lopez explains that giving someone a few dollars, buying them a hot meal, setting them up at a half-way house, putting them on medication, while not bad things, are not a solution, especially if they come without a relationship.
The great thing about the book is that Lopez is able to expertly retell his experiences with Ayers so that the reader begins rooting for both Lopez and Ayers to succeed. The narrative in the story is compelling because this is Lopez’s story and because of his background as a columnist he is able to effectively share his experiences.
The movie that was based on the book and released in 2009 under the same title should have been as compelling as the book but it lacked the focused narrative that Lopez provided in the book. In other words, the movie was boring. And it really shouldn’t have been as it had two great actors, Robert Downey, Jr. and Jamie Foxx, playing Steve Lopez and Nathaniel Anthony Ayers. They did their best to make the story work, but without certain situations like the powerful meeting between Ayers and Yo-Yo Ma and the struggle Lopez encountered in trying to balance his relationship and responsibilities with Ayers to those of his family the movie fell flat. I originally saw the movie not long after it was released to DVD and was disappointed in it. Then, after reading the book and then seeing the movie, I was doubly disappointed as I now could see what the movie was missing out on.
The music lover would definitely appreciate this book by Steve Lopez in how it draws on the power of music and displays how music itself can be as powerful if not more so than any medication or treatment could be. I also appreciated that in the story Lopez does not claim a silver bullet to eradicating homelessness and curing mental illness but explains that the best thing you can do is be present in other people’s lives. This is a message that we could all stand to here a bit more often.