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HRC Book Review: The Soloist
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In this first of many HRC reviews of books, films, and music about homelessness, Jeff Olivet reviews The Soloist by Steve Lopez (Berkley Books, 2008). Lopez, a columnist for the LA Times, meets and befriends Nathaniel Ayers, a musician living with schizophrenia on the streets of LA. Through the course of the months and years that begin to unfold, Lopez explores “a lost dream, an unlikely friendship, and the redemptive power of music.”
HRC Book Review: The Soloist

As I finished The Soloist, I thought, “Well, that makes my holiday shopping easier.” The next day, I walked to the bookstore in Harvard Square and bought five copies to give away. Steve Lopez, a columnist for the LA Times, and an unlikely advocate for people living with poverty, homelessness, and mental illness, captures the spirit of what homeless service providers are trying to do everyday—walk beside people for a little while during their journey of recovery.

Lopez meets and slowly befriends Nathaniel Ayers—Julliard dropout, bass player, violinist, cellist, mentally ill, homeless, scratching away on a beat-up violin that’s missing two strings in his tunnel a few blocks from city hall in Los Angeles.

As the writer begins to craft a series of columns in the paper about the musician living on the streets, donations and offers of help begin to pour in. New instruments. Sheet music. Seats for the LA Philharmonic. Psychiatric help. Ayers, constantly fighting against the voices and the rage, eventually warms up to Lopez, and a friendship slowly emerges—sometimes trusting, sometimes rocky, sometimes non-existent, sometimes contrite…but a friendship.

As Steve Lopez and his family become more closely connected to Nathaniel, Lopez helps to put in place housing and services that will ultimately provide stability and community for a man who has lived on the streets for years. Lopez connects with Lamp Community—an organization based on Skid Row that provides “immediate housing and lifelong supportive services for homeless men and women living with severe mental illness” (for more details, go to

Ayers has ups and downs. At first he comes to his new apartment at Lamp only to practice his music. Then a couple of nights a week. Then all the time. He continues to fight the inner demons—yells at other residents, berates those who smoke, criticizes the staff. But he is there. He is housed, stable, and alive.

For years, as an outreach worker and case manager working with people experiencing homelessness, I tried to explain to my friends and family what I did every day. The answer didn’t always make sense to them: I spend time with people, walk beside them for a little while, take on their stories, hope for small victories. In reading The Soloist, I had the feeling that Steve Lopez has captured this much better than I was able to, even after 10 years of working in shelters, housing programs and on the street. He doesn’t sugarcoat it. But he also doesn’t lose hope.

If you haven’t read this book, go get it. It’s a quick full of beauty, and music, and sadness, and recovery, and loss, and sickness, and friendship, and hope.

Literature Review
Rockville, MD
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