The Soloist is a successful variation a formulaic relationship between a not-normally-activist columnist and a schizophrenic street musician who once was a student at Juilliard. It's written with skill and honesty, a great part of its success. Whereas the title highlights the "the redemptive power of music," the text itself makes clear that no one is fully redeemed and the degree to which anyone achieves progress--emotionally, in life skills and survival--depends on human kindness, patience, tenacity, and a refusal to accept the painful contradiction in our society that it is all right for some people to "make it" and others not.
Nathaniel, the street musician, naturally is the key figure in the text but only slightly more so than the narrator, Steve Lopez, who at fifty-something is wondering how much he has left in his tank for writing newspaper columns that ding incompetent government agencies and general American complacency with the status quo. Lopez knows he is no angel, and he knows the same about Nathaniel, which is what makes this book real. In part because the story occurs in L.A., it reminds me a bit of the movie "Heat" in which Al Pacino, a cop, becomes over-involved with his police work (chasing Robert DeNiro) at the expense of his marriage. Lopez has that kind of problem, needing understanding from a wife and young child who don't have that much to give him. The time he spends on Nathaniel clearly takes away from the time he spends at home, and yet he can't let go of Nathaniel, whose descent into mental illness is deep but not beyond connection. Several musicians and mental health care professionals help Lopez help Nathaniel move in off the street and recover some of his life-sustaining musical gifts.
Lopez is generous, and accurate, in ensuring that the reader knows that no single individual, or even institution, is enough to get through to a man like Nathaniel after thirty years on the sidewalks, in subway tunnels, and in parks. More realism, in other words. What one wonders, on finishing a book like this, is how such volumes can be published without provoking a nationwide reassessment of our social safety-net. There aren't enough fellows like Steve Lopez around, desperately needing someone to save who just as desperately need saving.
Causes Robert Earle Supports
World Wildlife Fund