Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Soloist

I just finished Steve Lopez's nonfiction book, The Soloist. It was a good read, even though the ending was much too abrupt. If you're looking for quick, easy summertime reading, this is a good choice. (San Jose residents take note--Mr. Lopez attended San Jose State and worked for the SJ Mercury.)

The Soloist is about a gifted but mentally unstable musician, Nathaniel Ayers, and a journalist who attempts to get Mr. Ayers to reach his full potential. The interactions between Ayers and Lopez are well-described, offering readers a glimpse into how the homeless and mentally ill survive. Mr. Lopez successfully highlights the plight of the homeless, especially L.A.'s lawless "Skid Row," without being overly judgmental or sentimental. He also casts aspersions on Tom Cruise and others who denigrate drug treatment for the mentally ill. (One gets the feeling that anyone who spends enough time on Skid Row will probably believe that drugs are an important part of treating the mentally ill.)

The Soloist
peels back the curtain of comfortable civilization, revealing a broken system. The key question is, "How do we help people who are prone to violent outbursts and who refuse help because of deep-seated fear and mistrust?" Mr. Lopez answers this question through his book: patience, trust, and friendship.

Mr. Lopez also touches on racial issues, but doesn't develop that storyline much. Even so, I felt Mr. Lopez identified with Mr. Ayers and stuck with him for so long was because they shared a racial similarity: neither had the "right" color for the business they were in. Here is one interesting passage, from/about the author himself (p. 110, Berkley paperback):

The issue of race is inescapable for me. I often joke that the main difference between the East Coast and the West is that when I wrote columns for the Philadelphia Inquirer, the mail said Go Back to Puerto Rico, and in Los Angeles it says Go Back to Mexico. It's a strange phenomenon for someone with grandparents from Italy and Spain, and it makes me more attuned to the hatred aimed at people of color even in a place like Los Angeles, which is defined by its multiculturalism.

My take on the source of Mr. Ayers' mental illness is that it resulted from a combination of stressors--poor racial relations, the hyper-competitiveness of Julliard, and the burden of being a minority in a place where few minorities existed. Mr. Lopez seems to agree with my opinion--he quotes Hal Slapin, who says that "Julliard in the 1970s 'was not a place where students...were encouraged to bond...racial tensions were high.'" (p. 247-248). Mr. Lopez also mentions that Mr. Ayers was drawn to another musician, Eugene Moye, who was half-black (p. 246).

Mr. Ayers' story has a happy ending, but that's only because Mr. Lopez became involved and used the power of the press to change Mr. Ayers' life, and, by extension, his own. Mr. Lopez probably wrote his book to shed some light on the plight of the homeless. At one point, he practically pleads for government intervention, asking, "What's more human, after all? To respect someone's civil liberties to the point of allowing them to wither away on the street, or to intercede in the interest of their own welfare?" (page 101) Later, he implies that L.A.'s annual budget for housing and services is not enough, saying that New York City's is "three times that of Los Angeles" (p. 132). Yet, he also mentions that, at least around 2006, California's state commission had "more than $1 billion a year...[to spend] on expanded mental services" (page 133).

The cynic in me doesn't think we're going to see any systemic change--no matter how much money is spent on the problems of the homeless, it must feel like a Sisyphean task to anyone involved. The real problem is that the public doesn't see much return on their taxpayer dollars when it comes to any kind of social services. As a result of the lack of visibility, social and welfare services will be the first to get cut in our modern era of massive state deficits. Indeed, unless homeless men kill someone or get killed, they tend to be invisible. Mr. Lopez has clearly added something valuable in his descriptions of "Skid Row," which exists, apparently unabated, to keep the problems of the homeless segregated from the public. The question is whether the public will listen after reading/seeing The Soloist, and what their response will be.

Personally, I was moved, but not so much that I would feel the need to increase taxes to fund more housing/welfare programs. Mr. Ayers is a sympathetic character, but it is difficult to justify spending taxpayer dollars when there is no corresponding tangible benefit to society. I am sure I will be accused of being heartless, but let's think through this issue. If Mr. Ayers had never met Mr. Lopez, what would have changed? Mr. Ayers would have probably continued to play his music, but to a small, local audience. Post-Mr. Lopez, the only difference to society is that Mr. Ayers now has a wider audience for his story and his music.

At first, I saw some parallels between Ayers and James "Radio" Robert Kennedy, popularized in the Cuba Gooding Jr. movie, Radio. In both of these instances, two members of the middle-class try to help socially-challenged African-Americans. After some reflection, however, I realized that the stories were not substantively similar at all. In Radio's case, the football coach bucked an entire town's prejudices, which almost cost him his job. Here, in contrast, Mr. Lopez has taken up an easier cause--the plight of the homeless, which actually helped him maintain his job and his salary. That's one reason I wasn't quite sucked into the story--there is some personal benefit to Mr. Lopez here, no matter how hard he tries to show his reader the sacrifices he and his family have made. (At one point, the author talks about moving to a cheaper house and city.) Overall, I enjoyed reading The Soloist. I don't know if I will see the film, but it is receiving good reviews.

Of course, I realize Mr. Lopez has done a wonderful thing. Without his intervention, Mr. Ayers might not be alive today. In 2007, San Jose saw its most famous homeless man, Cornelius Van Der Vies, die after a street altercation. Two weeks before his death, I looked into Cornelius's eyes and saw an abject fear behind his clean, dignified appearance. It was then that I realized that many homeless persons survive through an alertness provided by constant fear.

There is no question that current resources are inadequate to solve homelessness. While Mr. Lopez has provided us with a success story, it's hard to contemplate enough willing people who want to become deeply involved in strangers' lives. That probably means that despite Mr. Lopez's efforts, the problems of the homeless will continue, out of sight, and out of mind.

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