Michael Moore's life might have turned out very differently if he had figured out how to escape to Canada. He gave it a pretty good try, though.
In the most amusing anecdote in Here Comes Trouble – a memoir by the filmmaker, writer and tireless scourge of America's right – Moore describes his increasing anxieties as a high-school senior in Michigan nearing the draft-eligible age of 18 at the tail end of the Vietnam War. He and three buddies decided to get pro-active about the problem by taking refuge on the other side of the Great Lakes. The young Moore thought it would be easy enough to get past any border guards: All they would have to do is claim they were visiting some Canadian cousins.
"I can speak some Canadian," he assured his pals. "All you have to do is talk slower and put an extra 'u' in some words."
Alas, they ran into a few hitches while trying to cross the Blue Water Bridge from Port Huron, Mich., to Sarnia, Ont. One was their inability to come up with a good excuse why there was a boat attached to their car (an earlier scheme to cross the St. Clair River got fouled up because of the boat's lack of an outboard motor … and oars).
Luckily for these young Americans, the border guards on the Canadian side were mostly bemused by their boneheaded efforts and sent them back home without reprimand. Moore was eventually classified 4-F on his draft card and, as he writes with palpable relief, "did not have to learn French, the metric system, or how to soak my fries in cheese curd."
Moore would nevertheless claim honorary Canadian status in the years to come, singing the country's praises in such documentaries as Bowling for Columbine and Sicko (he would also imagine a U.S.-Canada war in his 1995 satire Canadian Bacon).
But beyond the book's opening chapter – in which Moore describes the understandably upsetting volume of death threats he received after the 2003 Academy Award acceptance speech in which he decried America's "fictitious president" and the war he had just started in Iraq – the story of Moore's career as a filmmaker is largely outside the scope of Here Comes Trouble. Instead, his eighth literary venture is his first bona fide memoir, an ambling but amiable collection of stories about the events and people who made him the muckraker he is today.
That said, the Moore who emerges in the anecdotes here is a milder, folksier fellow than the Bush-baiting firebrand who barked and bellowed through such bestsellers as Dude, Where's My Country? and Downsize This! In fact, the book's first half is devoted to stories about his childhood and the history of his family, largely related in a wry and gentle manner that is a far cry from his usual prose style. Events in Moore's early days are juxtaposed with other pieces of family lore, ranging from his father's experiences in the Second World War to an account of his great-great-grandfather's close relationship with the local Chippewa back when homesteaders were new to the Michigan Territory.
All this is pleasant without necessarily being very interesting. Many of the stories – such as the one about a tense family outing to a Detroit Tigers game a few weeks after the city was ravaged by riots in July, 1967 – are evidently included as evidence of his early distaste for any form of social injustice and of his burgeoning political sensibility. Unfortunately, they also lack the dramatic charge to qualify as Road to Damascus moments. In its most meandering passages, Here Comes Trouble has the indulgent air of someone narrating a slide show of old family photos, sharing yarns that don't quite have enough colour or texture to enthrall anyone who isn't a blood relation.
More engaging are Moore's reminisces about his doomed stint at seminary school – like so many bright Catholic lads, he entertained the idea of becoming a priest until he discovered girls – and his raucous years as Michigan's youngest elected official (he earned a spot on Davison's school board when only 18). This is where the more familiar and more controversial version of Moore begins to emerge, much to the relief of loyal readers who may have worried that he wasn't going to show up.
And even if this is hardly the first place Moore has recounted the battles he fought as the editor of the Flint Voice or waxed nostalgic about his earliest experiences in the world of documentary film, Here Comes Trouble still succeeds as a garrulous highlight reel of his life before Roger & Me set him on the path to becoming one of the most vigorous combatants in America's culture wars. So it's probably just as well that he and his buddies forgot to bring those oars.
THE QUOTABLE MICHAEL MOORE Excerpts from Michael Moore's Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life:
Wishes for my early demise seemed to be everywhere. They were certainly on the mind of CNN's Bill Hemmer one sunny July morning in 2004. He had heard something he wanted to run by me. And so, holding a microphone in front of my face on the floor of the 2004 Democratic National Convention, live on CNN, he asked me what I thought about how the American people were feeling about Michael Moore: "I've heard people say they wish Michael Moore was dead."
I tried to recall if I'd ever heard a journalist ask anyone that question before on live television. Dan Rather did not ask Saddam Hussein that question. I'm pretty sure Stone Phillips didn't ask serial killer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer, either. Perhaps, maybe, Larry King asked Liza once – but I don't think so.
* * * * *
When I was 14 I decided it was time to leave home. Mostly bored with school since the first grade, but politely biding my time to keep everybody happy, I realized I could do more good for myself and the world (wherever that was) if I became a Catholic priest. I'm not sure of the day when I got "the calling," but I can guarantee you there was no vision or voice from above, no burning bush or Virgin sighting. Most likely I was just watching the news, probably saw one or both of the Berrigan brothers, the radical Catholic priests, breaking into a draft office and destroying the records of young men who were to be sent to Vietnam, and I said to myself, "Now, that's what I wanna do when I grow up!" I liked the idea of the Action Hero Priest, and I thought I could do that. I liked seeing priests helping Cesar Chavez organize the farm workers. I wasn't completely sure what it all meant; it just seemed like a decent thing to do. It was pretty basic: you had a responsibility to help those worse off than you. I was never going to play for the Pistons or the Red Wings, so the priesthood seemed like a good second choice.
* * * * *
I used to think all liberals and lefties were the same: good hearts, good politics. It took a real wake-up call in the capital of liberalism, San Francisco, for me to realize that there were various forms of "liberals," and the one I had never encountered back in Flint [Michigan] was the Wealthy Liberal Who Loved Humanity But Hated People. He's the liberal whose conscience is eased by the generosity of his chequebook – just as long as you, the recipient of his largesse, look the other way and not consider how he came to have that money in the first place.
* * * * *
Flint was the Forgotten City in the 1980s. Once a vibrant, thriving metropolitan area that was the birthplace of the world's largest, richest company – General Motors – it was now an evil science experiment for the rich. Question: Can we increase our profits by eliminating the jobs of the people who not only build our cars but also buy them? The answer was yes – if you kept the rest of the country working so they could buy your cars. What the mad scientists didn't count on was that those car workers would not only stop buying the cars once they were jobless, they would also stop buying televisions, dishwashers, clock radios and shoes. This in turn would cause the businesses which made those items to either go under or make their products elsewhere. Eventually, those who had the remaining jobs would have to try to buy the cheapest stuff possible with their drastically reduced wages, and in order for manufacturers to keep that stuff cheap, it would have to be made by fifteen-year-olds in China.
Jason Anderson is a Toronto-based journalist.
Special to The Globe and Mail