Michael Moore was kicked out of the seminary after his freshman year of high school. Not for any indiscretion; he was a fine student, apparently. His class dean told him not to bother returning for sophomore year “because you upset the other boys by asking too many questions,” the filmmaker recalls in his new book, Here Comes Trouble: Stories From My Life. “Why’s that? What’s that for? Who said? After a while, Mr. Moore, it gets tiring.”
The Fox News gang is probably tittering right now. To many on one side of the political divide, Moore’s personalized, in-your-face documentary style, seen in some of the genre’s biggest-grossing films (Bowling For Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11), represents the worst hectoring of liberal America. Seminary training notwithstanding, Moore comes across as holier-than-thou.
But he specializes in excommunicating himself so the congregation can hope to thrive. The two dozen stories in the aptly titled Here Comes Trouble feature Moore asking “Who said?” over and over. He wins a student speech contest by demanding that the Elks Club integrate. He runs for a school committee at age 18—and wins—after getting paddled by an assistant principal over an untucked shirt. He starts an alternative newspaper, the Flint Voice, which rakes up so much muck that it finally chokes to death due to a lack of advertising.
And he stumbles onto camera while conducting interviews at a neo-Nazi rally, which leads directly to his own first feature documentary, Roger & Me. The Michael Moore who came to prominence with that film—the hefty, scruffy, bespectacled guy in the XXL windbreaker and the too-small baseball cap—has been a ubiquitous public figure since. Here Comes Trouble gives him a backstory. “I’ll admit I had an unusually large-sized head” at birth, he writes, always quicker than his detractors to tease himself. The typical Midwesterner’s noggin at the time of his arrival, Moore jokes, was designed with extra space “should we ever have a chance to learn anything outside of our rigid and insular lives.”
Moore’s ancestors were pioneers and civic leaders. One bleeding heart rowed canoes full of medicine to a Chippewa tribe suffering from an outbreak of measles. Moore’s grandfather, a doctor, saw President McKinley get shot. Moore’s own boyhood was straight out of Leave It To Beaver, with bikes and ball games, cheerleader crushes, a gay neighbor who ran away from home, and a church group that cheered when informed of Martin Luther King’s assassination.
Moore is a funny writer; just as he does in his movies, he enlivens grim subjects with gallows humor. After being shouted offstage at the Academy Awards for denouncing the Iraq War, he got a backstage bonus, he writes: The first two words Oscar winners hear when they step behind the curtain are “Champagne?” and “Breath mint?” “Lucky me, I got to hear a third… ASSHOLE!”
His tales, with cameo appearances by Robert Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, John Lennon, and Kurt Vonnegut, will probably kill on the audiobook version. Moore has been on the bestseller lists before, with Stupid White Men and Dude, Where’s My Country? But he’s more a yarn-spinner than a writer. As a man of ideas—about fundamentalism, economic injustice, corruption and close-mindedness—he has plenty in common with H.L. Mencken, the great linguist and social satirist. But Moore is an admirable champion of the common man; he wouldn’t dream of condescending to the “booboisie,” as Mencken did. On the page, he’s no Mencken, either.
Here Comes Trouble isn’t an autobiography so much as a disjointed series of scenes from a life spent making a scene. “It’s hard to make nonfiction seem believable,” Vonnegut tells Moore, marveling at how well he pulls it off. Moore plays each anecdote to its cinematic hilt, but the cumulative result isn’t a feature so much as a series of eight-minute shorts.
He’s undoubtedly been rehearsing these stories in his head, and hauling them out as dinner conversation, for years. Of his early efforts to effect change in his community, he writes, “The intimidating thing about democracy is that it seems so impossible, so unmanageable, so out of reach to the average person. By twenty-two, I knew that to be a myth.” Clearly, he recognizes the value of mythologizing his own story, too.