Page numbers refer to the hardcover edition. Some questions were supplied by the book's publisher.
- When they meet, Steve sees Nathaniel simply as a newspaper story, one that can bring attention to LA's Skid Row. What obligations does Steve have-to his paper, to society, to Nathaniel-in reporting that story? How does his role change once the story affects Nathaniel's life?
- Readers begin to donate instruments and money immediately after Steve's first article. What do you think compels people to help a stranger? Would people have been as eager to help Nathaniel if Steve hadn't written about him or if Nathaniel had not been a musical genius? What do you think this says about human nature?
- Steve struggles to get Nathaniel housing and medical treatment. He encounters at least two philosophies—Carla Jacobs' belief that forcible treatment is needed for people with grave mental illness (p. 93), and Mark Ragins' belief that they should receive support to manage their own recovery (p. 94). How should caregivers and public policymakers make decisions between these opposing viewpoints? Do you agree with Steve's actions? How do they affect Nathaniel's health and happiness?
- Although Steve doesn't approach Nathaniel looking for either a friend or a music teacher, he winds up with both. Discuss how their relationship progresses from writer/subject to friendship. Is there a turning point in their relationship that you can identify? Have you experienced something similar in your own life?
- Music is a powerful presence in the book. For Nathaniel, the music he plays seems to help him keep his illness at bay. Do you believe there is a link between creativity and mental health or mental illness?
- With Steve's help, Nathaniel meets other musicians for the first time in many years. In what ways are his interactions with them different from his relationship with Steve?
- Nathaniel attended Juilliard during the 1960s, when its students were predominately white. How much do you think the pressures of being one of the only African-American students at Juilliard contributed to Nathaniel's breakdown?
- A visit from his sister is a joyful moment for Nathaniel, but her court appeal to manage his finances sets off his rage. (p. 240) Discuss what Steve and his readers know about Nathaniel's family. Do you believe that family dynamics play a role in mental illness? If you know a family dealing with mental illness, how has that changed your preconceptions?
- Steve seems ambivalent about the mayor's request to visit Skid Row with him. (p. 119) He also seems deeply conflicted when a downtown resident at an awards banquet accuses him of exploiting Nathaniel. (p. 216) Discuss the issues of exploitation and appropriation raised by the book. What did you think of Nathaniel's request to read Steve's articles about him?
- At one point in the book, Steve asks, "Is he happy?" (p. 126) What constitutes happiness for Nathaniel? How does asking this question help Steve to help Nathaniel? Do you think the book has a "happy ending?"
- In what ways does Nathaniel's story fit your preconceptions about people facing homelessness, and in what ways has it changed your ideas? In what ways does his story fit your preconceptions about people facing serious mental illnesses, and in what way has it changed your ideas?