When he was a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer, I read Steve Lopez regularly. Not religiously, but often enough to acquire an appreciation for his writing.
The Soloist reminded me of all that I loved about Lopez’s poetic prose, even if I didn’t love the issues or the stance he took in his inky space. Because make no mistake about it, this guy can write and he writes exceptionally well.
It’s not enough for a book to be written well, though. It has to have a compelling story, and through that of Nathaniel Ayers, Lopez delivers to his readers a story that I could not put down and didn’t want to put down. It is the story of Lopez’s chance encounter with Ayers, a brilliant musician and former Juilliard student who is homeless and living on Los Angeles’ Skid Row with all the demons and hallucinations that his schizophrenia brings upon him. (“From paranoia to poetry, sirens to violins, madness to genius. Nathaniel’s life is opera.” ~ pg. 103)
From the very first pages, Lopez immediately makes a connection with his reader, drawing one into Nathaniel’s story (and Lopez’s own), making the reader read on and on well into the night (I stayed up last night until well past 1 a.m., reading for more than two hours straight) because you need to find out what happens to him.
Among the many, many things I loved about The Soloist is Lopez’s honesty in regards to his desire to help Nathaniel. Lopez quickly realizes that the world of mental illness is a complicated one on many levels and that there is often a frustrating disconnect between offering someone services and actually getting someone to use those same services. He discovers that even professionals in the mental health field disagree on the best approach to take, and that it can vary from person to person.
I found this utterly refreshing. As someone who has spent her entire life working in the nonprofit community, I’ve come into contact with many, many, many people who have adopted a particular cause that I’ve worked for and have been blinded by the illusion that all would now be right with the world because of their involvement. Or that by graviating onto one particular person or client, that sad-sack’s life would now be made miraculously whole. Or those who think nothing of starting a nonprofit or foundation to solve the world’s problems and to cure any named cause or disease without giving any thought to the possibility of partnering with those who have been engaged in such work for years.
Ahem. Anyway. Yeah, so as I meant to say, Lopez is under none of these delusions and is candidly honest in writing of the frustrations of trying to help Nathaniel. In doing so, he connects with everyone who has been in the position of helping a loved one who has been resistant to receiving help.
“I feel jerked around. I feel sympathetic. I feel abused. It’s almost harder to see Nathaniel on the good days than the bad, because you let yourself be deceived into thinking he’s going to stay that way. And then that switch goes off and he’s fighting himself and blaming it on everyone around him. I see now how someone really sick can burn through your patience, if not your sense of compassion. … And I can’t just walk away. Part of it is the desire to follow through on something that’s become important and meaningful in my life and to satisfy the human instinct to help someone less fortunate. And maybe there’s something more.” (pg. 101)
Some might wonder why Lopez invested nearly two years in Nathaniel, what it was he saw in him that made him spend nights with him on Skid Row. (“I look into his eyes and see the man he’s always been behind the racing, spinning madness. The son who lost a father. The musician who lost a chance. No, we don’t have too many so-called normal conversations. But what’s normal? I hold his hand in mind, and neither of us needs to say a thing.” ~ pg. 197)
As a newspaper reporter, Lopez writes “I deal too often with people who are programmed, or have an agenda, or guard their feelings. Nathaniel is a man unmasked, his life a public display. We connect in part because there is nothing false about him, and I come away from every encounter more attuned to my own feelings than I would be after, say, an interview with the mayor or the governor. Nathaniel turns my gaze inward. He has me examining what I do for a living and how I relate to the world as a journalist and as a citizen. Despite the many frustrations he presents, I’ll never have a richer reward than knowing him well enough to tell his story.” (pg. 182)
Lopez is also honest about what he is giving up – time with his family, especially his 2 year old daughter Caroline – in order to help Nathaniel.
“Fortunately I’ve caught all the big milestones, but the really good stuff is nothing you can write in a journal. It’s an expression that only you can see the changes in, it’s the emergence of a personality unique to the world, it’s the way she comes out of the bath with her hair slicked back and you catch a glimpse of what she might look like when she’s older.” (pg. 89)
See what I mean about Lopez’s writing? If your heart doesn’t catch in your throat upon reading that, then I’d assume you don’t have one.
The Soloist has heart and soul. We’re all attracted to a compelling story. We all want to help someone less fortunate. We’re all wondering what our purpose is, if how we’re spending our days and if what we do to earn a paycheck really truly matters. We all want to do something to make the world a better place. We want to matter to someone.
When I tell people that I blog about books, among other things, I’m usually asked for a good book recommendation. I guess it comes with the territory and that’s fine with me. I love talking about good books. Make no mistake about it, The Soloist is one that I will be talking about – and recommending (I think it should be required reading for students, actually) – for a very, very long time to come.
5 stars out of 5
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FTC disclosure: I borrowed this book from my local library.
copyright 2010, Melissa (Betty and Boo’s Mommy, The Betty and Boo Chronicles) If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.