I really need to stop letting myself get so stressed out choosing the book of the month. It wears me down and makes me old. I take it so seriously. When I recommend a book, it means something. I want to be behind the book one hundred percent if I promote it and ask others to read it. And for December I want a book that somehow contributes to the holidays that engulf us that month, a book to discuss but also a book to give confidently to family members, a book with values worth thinking about as the year draws to a close.
I’m trying not to rush it, I’ve got a hundred pages to go, but my exhilarating discovery for December is The Soloist by Steve Lopez. It’s a memoir, gorgeously written in a straight-from-the-hip, muscular prose, about a friendship across nearly insurmountable obstacles, opening up the reader to the world of the homeless and mental illness through the story of Nathaniel Ayers, one supremely talented and unlucky man.
Steve Lopez is a columnist for The Lost Angeles Times, a healthy, successful fifty-two-year-old who discovers a homeless black man playing a violin with only two strings left near the statue of Beethoven in the park. It turns out, however, that this particular homeless madman attended Julliard and was considered by his teachers to be a musical genius. Now he’s Nathaniel Ayers, crazy street bum, a fifty-four-year-old former phenom whose life stopped dead thirty years ago, who carries what’s left of his life with him in a shopping cart covered by a tarp and fills the tunnels with classical music.
The difference between these two men is luck.
Lopez becomes obsessed with the homeless musician, and his lean, brisk memoir recounts his heartbreaking attempts to get Nathaniel off the drug-riddled, rat-infested streets into safe housing. Lopez is the man for the job. He goes the whole nine yards, from getting Nathaniel into a symphony orchestra rehearsal to spending a night with him on Skid Row.
I’m a total sucker for friendship stories, the bigger the gap between the friends the better. This one is right up there. You read it with a lump in your throat and occasionally-blurring vision. Actually, it bears a considerable resemblance to one of my favorites, Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett. In it, she tells the story of her friendship with Lucy Grealy, a physically-deformed cancer victim and excellent writer. Patchett’s good-hearted attempts to save self-destructive Lucy from herself are echoed by Lopez. Although the focus of both memoirs is on the colorful, talented victim of fate, the character who becomes the heart of the book in both cases is the author. Like Patchett, Lopez is utterly endearing, modest and sincere. It’s not about him, and yet it’s all about his passion and commitment to his friend.
A perfect example is the scene where Lopez is being honored by a mental health audience. Everyone’s risen to their feet applauding his pioneering work on Skid Row, and his response, knowing that Nathaniel is still on the streets, is to grip the microphone yearning to beg anyone to tell him what to do next.
Modesty is so attractive. Lopez is my kind of hero. And in the stressful world of newspaper layoffs, editorial resignations and corporate cutbacks, his attempt to do the right thing creates a book so full of the spirit of compassion that when it’s not laugh-out-loud funny I’m wiping my wet, red eyes. Like I say, I’ve still got a hundred pages to go yet, but it’s hard to believe The Soloist will stray too far from its current excellence, the page-turning tale of two men fiercely bound together by friendship, regarding each other across the economic chasm, with two utterly different definitions of happiness.
Okay, that’ll do. Time to tuck into those last few chapters, reading them nice and slow. This book is too good to rush.