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The Good Listener

TALK TO ME By Anna Deveare Smith; Random House: 300 pp., $24.95

October 22, 2000|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS | Susan Salter Reynolds writes the Discoveries column for Book Review

You can't help but like her, this collector of voices, this advocate for authenticity. Her messages are good, wholesome and strong: We must learn to listen better; the language of politics in this country is plastic, no longer reflecting or even resembling real American voices.

Anna Deveare Smith began her search for authenticity as an actress in training. "Acting," she writes, "is the furthest thing from lying that I have encountered." She took a few boring jobs, which she was able to learn from and make interesting by listening to the stories of people around her. She listened to patterns in their speech and looked for the places where they rose above the limits of language to true, authentic expression. In a Shakespeare class, she learned about iambs and trochees ("when the iamb goes upside down . . . instead of Buh DUH, you get BUH duh"). When there was a trochee in the second beat of a word or phrase, her teacher explained, it meant the character was " 'losing it' psychologically." Smith cites the most famous example in Shakespeare, King Lear saying, "Never, never, never, never, never, never," all trochees. Smith's method, ever since, has been to look for the trochees in speech; the speech of presidents and the speech of prison inmates. She has conducted thousands of interviews across the country, many of which are transcribed here, in the shape of poems.

Smith grew up in Baltimore in the 1960s. She is African American. Her family was matriarchal. Both her mother and father went to college. She is light-skinned, she tells us, but her brother has blond hair and blue eyes. She grew up afraid of white people and was surprised in young adulthood by several memorable moments in which she was able to make a genuine connection with a white person. She rose, early on, to the challenge of moving full bore into situations that frightened her.

In the early 1990s, Smith became well-known for two plays that she wrote, directed and acted in. "Fires in the Mirror" is about the 1991 riots in Brooklyn between the blacks and the Jews. "Twilight: Los Angeles 1992" is about the Los Angeles riots. Far from being a successful melting pot, American culture, Deveare writes, "is a process of looking at fragments, of looking at the unmerged." From her interviews, Smith creates word poems that appear, sometimes unexpectedly, throughout "Talk to Me." They are points of energy in sometimes tedious chapters filled with fragments, for example, of dinners and lunches Smith has with supposedly influential people.

Early in her career, Smith became interested in the language of politics, and was able, on assignment for Newsweek and as part of her own research, to plug into Clinton's campaign, particularly the 1996 campaign. She had one very long interview with the president in which her talent for listening to the trochees of power are reminiscent of the great Oriana Fallaci. Fallaci was a powerful observer of gestures and expressions in her interviews; Smith preys on speech. In her 1997, off-the-record interview with the president, Clinton seemed preoccupied with what he considered the media's shabby coverage of Whitewater. He had almost lost his voice completely when he got to the part about how the media failed to report the findings of the "Republican law firm" that there was no basis for criminal action. "Little bitty notice made!" Clinton rasped. "Little bitty notice made?" Smith writes. "When people start talking like that is when I normally say in an interview, 'Now you're talking.' By now you're talking I mean, now you are past language information."

Smith tried for months to get on Air Force One, and her descriptions of that experience are best when she sticks to the facts, reporting what most of us never get to see, but she spends too much time getting back at the reporters who dissed her, like Maureen Dowd of The New York Times, who was indignant that an actress should have access to the president, implying that Smith was masquerading as a journalist.

Smith doesn't care much for journalists (some, she might say using an old racist adage, of her best friends are journalists), and she doesn't care much for the hierarchies of Washington, but she is distracted by her own reflection in the mirror. She has, she explains, employed her very own spin doctor, and all communication with the press must go through him ("I don't talk directly to the press unless it's organized by my rep," she writes.) It is unclear to the lay reader what role a spin doctor might play in the search for authenticity.

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