Steve Lopez is a newspaper columnist somewhat in the mold of Mike Royko or Jimmy Breslin. He's worked in Philadelphia and Los Angeles - also with Time magazine - and has turned out a few novels. Several years back, Lopez came upon an L.A. Skid Row denizen named Nathaniel Ayers, who impressed him with his violin playing, despite the fact that his instrument had only two strings. Sniffing a story, Lopez set out to learn more about his new acquaintance and discovered that Ayers had been enrolled at Juilliard more than 30 years earlier. Lopez's initial column on Ayers drew wide attention, and eventually spawned many more, as Lopez gradually became intimately involved in his subject's past and future. The Soloist directly recounts this unusual, ultimately heartwarming tale, but not before the author takes readers on a harrowing journey through the tougher elements of both mental-health treatment and the lower depths of downtown L.A.

It turns out that Ayers, after indeed spending two years at Juilliard as a promising string bass player, succumbed to a form of schizophrenia, thus disrupting his functionality, destroying his ability to continue in music school and eventually spiraling his life downward into the underclass. Encouraged by some of his concerned Los Angeles Times readers and also by cautious but supportive psychiatric professionals and social workers, Lopez forges a friendship with Ayers and for two years helps him get off the streets, pursue his music with renewed vigor, and take the huge emotional strides necessary to begin a modest re-entry into more conventional everyday living.

Lopez's writing is as propulsive as good fiction, and his central character is nothing if not a singularly fascinating gent - prone to disjointed stream-of-consciousness outbursts as well as brief informative lectures on classical music. Yet for all its positive-striding spirit, Lopez's book is rife with suspense, mainly because Ayers' complex personality problems emerge as all too real and - especially since he adamantly refuses meds - require unending patience on the part of those aiding his progress. The Soloist is inspirational but also very gritty stuff; a film adaptation starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr. is in the works.

Martin Brady writes from Nashville.

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