The Soloist: A Lost Dream, An Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music
By Steve Lopez
My book club this month read this book because it's this year's choice for the One Book, One Community Program. It's a really neat program that gives the community of East Lansing and the students of Michigan State University to read the same book then get together in different settings and discuss it. There's a week of events scheduled to begin August 30th with an evening with Steve Lopez and other seminars, showings of the movie, and workshops throughout the rest of the week. But enough about that; on to the book and what we thought of it!
The Soloist is Steve Lopez, a columnist for the LA Times who, while out looking for a story, came across a man in one of the tunnels of LA playing his heart out on an old violin with only two strings. Seeing that there's was obviously some musical ability in this man, he struck up a conversation with him. Steve discovered that his name was Nathaniel Ayers, he grew up in Cleveland where he learned to play the upright bass then was granted a scholarship to Julliard. During his time at Julliard, Nathaniel began doing odd things, acting out of the norm, yelling at others, randomly taking off his clothes, etc. and it was discovered (after he failed out) that he had schizophrenia. After years of forced treatment, drugs with terrible side effects, and his family not knowing what they could do for him, he ended up in the streets of LA, homeless and pushing around a shopping cart with his prized possessions.
When Steve gets to know Nathaniel, he realizes how much he wants to help him to get better so he begins to try to send him to LAMP (Los Angeles Men's Project), set him up with an apartment and psychiatric help, give him instruments and music that people have donated, and try to get him off the streets. Unfortunately, Steve doesn't quite seem to understand the disease and needed to learn the hard way that Nathaniel's progress wasn't going to be immediate or easy. But, throughout their time together, Steve was able to learn from Nathaniel, just as Nathaniel was able to learn from Steve, and their friendship grew into something very special.
I had really mixed feelings when reading this book. Sometimes I was really touched and liked how Steve was helping Nathaniel, but sometimes I really disliked Steve because I felt like he was kind of using Nathaniel for next week's column or that he was helping him not because he wanted to, but because he felt obligated to since he had made Nathaniel somewhat famous. Steve just pushed and pushed for Nathaniel to do certain things, even leading to tricking him into things and I just wanted to yell "Let him be! He doesn't WANT to!" at him. I guess since I wasn't there and in that situation, then I can sit here all I want and say that we can't make people conform to what we (as society) deem as "normal" but I'm sure that Steve Lopez had good intentions.
One thing that a lot of people at book club said was that this book made them want to go out and help! Get involved! etc. And while I can definitely understand that, I just kept asking myself, Could I go up to some homeless stranger and be their friend? Could I dedicate myself to helping someone who was homeless with mental disabilities? I just don't know. The thought kind of frightens me because I just don't think that I would feel comfortable doing that. I mean, I have no training or experience with people with mental diseases and you really never know what they are going to do or how they are going to react to things. I do think that volunteering and doing something to help your community is a really rewarding thing to do, but I don't think that helping the homeless or mentally ill is up my alley. When I start volunteering again, I think that something at the library or at a school would be something I would be more comfortable doing.
Anyway, Steve Lopez will be coming to East Lansing on August 30th to give a lecture. I'm definitely going to try to make it out there for it because I think that it would be interesting to hear what he has to say about his experiences and what his opinions are about the movie version of the book (which I haven't seen but heard is not very good and very Hollywood-ized). I wonder if seeing him speak in person will affect the way that I feel about the book?
For right now, I give it 7.5 out of 10 stars. I wasn't as inspired as I thought I would be.
Have you read this or seen the movie? What are your thoughts? Do you volunteer on a regular basis? What do you do and what inspired you to do so?