Review of THE SOLOIST, by Steve Lopez

January 10, 2009, 11:07 AM ·

Hi all,

I recently had the opportunity to review The Soloist, by Steve Lopez for Armchair Interviews. I thought I'd share it with you.

Happy reading and Happy New Year!




The Soloist
By Steve Lopez
Berkley Publishing Group
ISBN: 978-0-425-22600-1
Copyright 2008
Paperback, 289 pages, $15.00

The Soloist is the true story of gifted musician Nathaniel Ayers told by Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez. If you’re interested in classical music, especially the violin or cello, and love to read about the lives of musicians, then this touching, heart-warming book about the redeeming power of music is for you.

But the special thing about this story is that Nathaniel is not only homeless, but also mentally unstable. Lopez first encounters the musician in the infamous Skid Row, “a dumping ground for inmates released from a nearby county jail, and [a] place where sirens never stop screaming,” playing beautiful music on a tattered violin with only two strings. Thus begins their unusual bond and friendship as Lopez starts writing his newspaper columns about Nathaniel, garnering much attention from the public. Soon gifts begin to come in—violins, a cello, and even a piano.

The story offers two parallel journeys. On the one hand, we learn how Nathaniel began his life as a gifted musician, his admission to Juilliard, one of the toughest, most competitive music schools in the world, his breakdown and life on the streets. On the other hand, this is a journey of self discovery for our journalist narrator. By researching Nathaniel’s life and trying to help him, he learns about himself and human nature. This is a story of compassion, one that reminds us that there’s still goodness in this world. I mentioned that this book is about the redeeming power of music, but it’s also about the power of goodness and how it can change another person’s life.

Lopez’s style is engaging and witty, often combining keen observations about life with soft humor. His appreciation of music and this special musician comes through from his prose. He treats the sensitive subject of Schizophrenia with caution and respect.

The Soloist should definitely be in the shelf of every musician or anyone interested in music and/or mental illness.


January 10, 2009 at 11:57 PM ·

I've read that book, and you are right, muscians, professional and novice a like should read this book. Its poignant and funny. But as Mr. Ayer's fate as a gifted musician suffering from mental illness, lost in the world somehow, but his soul remained as he was, and still is a Gifted Muscian, for music makes him who he really is. His love for music are so overwhelming, you feel it throught hose pages.

Beautifully written, Mr. Lopez has found his almost lost soul through Mr. Ayer.

A MUST read!

I heard its already a movie.



January 11, 2009 at 02:58 AM ·

I guess I had a different reaction to the book, a distressing one, I must confess. Not that it wasn't a well-written and insightful book.

But I really wondered about the wisdom of giving Ayers (the mentally ill homeless man)  instruments, providing him lessons with an LA Phil member, fueling his dreams regarding music. I feel this is up for judgment, as the friendship between Lopez and Ayers arose from a desire to write a column, the desire to write a book arose from the friendship, and all the actions therein seemed to have something to do with creating a narrative. Lopez was very transparent about all of this, but this relationship was inextricably tied to the columns, book and now, movie.

If you go to Juilliard, you have serious ambitions regarding music. If you were unable, are unable, to go that path, is it a bit weird for someone to put you back on it? Cruel, even? I fully believe that Lopez meant the best, but I still felt like he was giving the poor man hair of the dog that bit him in handing him musical instruments and opportunities.

The idea that music will make Ayers happy...well, he doesn't necessarily have the mindset of the happy amateur and likely never will. To take lessons from and watch the greats may only remind him of what he lost, what he could have been, when he'll never be. Yes, maybe music makes him happy when he's alone in the street, divorced from expectation and life. But bring him back in the real world, and perhaps what he needs is something else entirely.

Just food for thought.

January 11, 2009 at 04:29 AM ·

Not being a mental health professional, my comments may not be well respected but....

In response to Laurie's comments, Nathaniel has been given opportunities and resources, both of which are not available to many in the world.  Like the rest of us, he can choose what he does with his life including facing the mental illness that has haunted him for decades.  Reality can be a scarry place for the sane and insane.  

Personally, I thought it was a beautiful story of friendship and passion for music.


January 11, 2009 at 10:18 AM ·

I have not read the book, but I can see some value in both arguments.  I agree with Laurie about that poor, sick man's needs.  Perhaps because of my neuroscience research background, I'm aware of ways to treat such suffering people.  Also I'm a practical humanitarian.  I believe that the sick man's first needs were for shelter, food, psychiatric care, and appropriate medications.  I know that's asking for a lot.  It would be hard, if not impossible, for the journalist and the public to fill these needs.  Once the man had his basic needs taken care of, I can see the value of nurturing his musical talent.  Man does not live by bread alone.  However, it would be cruel and unrealistic to set him up with expectations for a career as a professional violinists.

There are several tragedies here.  The decline into abject mental illness is visible to others.  Did this man have any family who could help him?  Any other good Samaritans? Anyone to pay for his psychiatric treatnent? All too often, caring friends and family can try but be ineffective in helping.  So much human potential too often slips through the safety net.

I have read a very good book, "There But for Fortune," about Phil Ochs, the 60s singer with several causes.  He was a very inspired and inspiring musician and songwriter.  However, he had a decades-long slide down into serious mental illness.  He had money, as well as family and friends who cared for him and truly wanted to help, but his mental illness was stronger than all these things.  His gradual decline into an alcoholic, filthy, violent, and crazed street person was very tragic.  He pulled himself together just long enough to commit suicide.

January 11, 2009 at 01:10 PM ·

I just finished reading this book. It hit home on many levels,music being one of course, but my mother in law was schizophrenic , and I understand how hard it was for Mr. Lopez to stick with him at times.


It will be a movie soon. I dont go to the movies but maybe once every 3 - 4 years, but I'll go see this one.


Heres the trailer for the moive:

January 11, 2009 at 01:37 PM ·

I didn't read the book but read the followup article in the LA times a couple of weeks ago. The article featured a video of his playing. I thought it was wonderful. I didn't get the sense that Steve Lopez was encouraging him to harbor a higher(?) expectation.I understood playing music was  therapeutic to this man. That his mental illness is just as starving as lack of food and shelter. 

January 11, 2009 at 02:19 PM ·

I, too have seen the new followed up, but as the book goes, Mr. Ayers still refuse to be treated, s in taking meds, but music is one of his therapy. The LA county has done a great deal with helping those homeless people because of this articles/book that Mr. Lopez did.

The book is not about a "good read" or a "bad read" book, its about someone who suffer from a mental illness, in unfortunate times of his life, when treatment are too scant and the stigma is too big to handle, as given the modern times now, where treatment is sophisticated and far more effective, the scar that leave Mr. Ayers memory is too great  for him to leave behind.

Treating mental illness always takes time, as according to the book, he still refused to be treated. Let just hope that he will give the treatment a try, for he really went his way to trust Mr. Lopez and the others and  passion for music that he still has.

My two bits..

January 11, 2009 at 05:42 PM ·

From what I've determined, being sane isn't a prerequiste for Juilliard (or ..., or ...).  Seriously, sending him to Juilliard is no worse than sending him anyplace else, since he probably won't earn a living at anything, no matter where he goes.  Statistically speaking.  Could be J. is his best chance!  We don't want to dirty Juilliard, though maybe /sarcasm. 

For something a little bit similar to this, look up "Moondog", including in Wikipedia.  It's eye-opening.

If the subject isn't getting his fair share of the proceeds from this, a bunch of people need their asses whipped.  That's the sequel maybe; how exploitational can someone be and still be considered a baseline normal for someone else's insanity?


January 11, 2009 at 06:57 PM ·

I Saw this on TV some time ago! I even think that Lopez was interviewed about it on 60 minuets?

January 11, 2009 at 10:33 PM ·

Jim, Ayers already went to Juilliard long ago, and it was partly that environment that stressed him to the breaking point, according to the book.

I think that Lopez's efforts to get Ayers a roof over his head and some safety are commendable, and really, everything he did was in good faith, I truly believe that.

I suppose I just feel that the message of this book is very complex, and something more like: mental illness remains a complete puzzlement. Has anyone read the Glass Castle? That's another book in which people just simply can't, and don't want to be, "saved."

It's easy for a mentally well person to see "choices" for a mentally ill person. Why don't they choose to take their medicine and get better? Why don't they choose to take advantage of the opportunities presented them, opportunities that will lift them from their mental and physical poverty? But I don't think they "choose" to remain mentally ill and/or homeless. It seems, instead, more an inevitable recourse, in certain cases.

Anyway, this book raises issues that are anything but simple, and I'll be curious to see how the movie ends. Lopez is perhaps transformed by the experience, and perhaps he brings the rest of us with him, but the way I read it, Ayers remains himself, for better or worse. Perhaps this is close to how Lopez sees it anyway, after all, he did call the book "The Soloist."

January 12, 2009 at 12:19 AM ·

Appropriate title I would say.  What you ask about the real nature of mental illness is an interesting thing.  I remember a thread a long time ago here where I told a story of when I was a kid and accidently frightened a neighborhood crazy guy into straightening up.  I was visiting someone at a donut shop where they worked, it was just us three there, and I went in back to get something and I think it caused him to think I was the owner getting ready to call the cops.  He got real normal.  Telling him to shut up and act normal had had no effect :) He could act normal when the benefit of it was clear to him.

I had a friend in medical school studying psychiatry and he was reading a book where the hypotheis was that mental illness isn't sets of symptoms, but rather the choice to display symptoms, which the patient is aware are abnormal.  Ronald Reagan caught flack for saying the homeless are homeless by choice, but there might be some truth in that.  We're all inclined to self-destructive behavior, less than ideal at least, but we mostly do keep living indoors... I knew a woman with a history of depression, and she said to me that what that's like is that -you don't see- all your options.  Runs the full spectrum I'm sure. 


January 13, 2009 at 01:26 AM ·

I am not sure that you read the same book I did, Ms. Niles.  I did not take away from the book that Steve Lopez was trying to reconnect Mr. Ayers with Julliard.  And as far as the professionals of the LA Philharmonic are concerned, according to the book, they personally volunteered their time to train Mr. Ayers in hopes of awakening him back to the stream of life, not necessarily to send him back to the pressure cooker that derailed him from life in the first place. 

I did take away from the book that Mr. Lopez was trying to make the reader aware of the deplorable treatment of mentally ill people.  I felt he was trying to chisel away at the stereo types that surround mentally ill people.  I think the message said that they were people first and foremost, struggling with mental illness.  And for clarification, music, according to the story, calmed Mr. Ayers.  He felt most at peace when playing.  Music  seemed to put the demons he was dealing with at bay.  Is that not the definition of kindness, to care for someone in such a way that they are uplifted? Granted, Mr. Lopez was not Mr. Ayers' miracle cure, nor was music.  But Mr. Ayers TRUSTED someone for the first time since he broke down.  That I believe is improvement.

As for the column, book and movie, Mr. Ayers is receiving compensation for all these and Mr. Lopez ensured this to make sure that Mr. Ayers had provision.  Prior to this Mr. Ayers did not even have government assistance.  It may not be ideal, but is it not better than nothing at all?  I doubt that Mr. Lopez was in it for the money per se.  No one in their right mind who was only after money would rush to the hospital in the middle of the night to assist someone who at times was mean and abrasive.  Perhaps if more of us showed such love and concern there would be fewer Nathaniel Ayers on the street.

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