Saturday, June 2, 2012

Operation Ruby Slipper is over the rainbow

Operation Ruby Slipper by John Meyer (Grace Note Publishing)

John Meyer is a songwriter, who's written comedy lyrics for people like Joan Rivers and Lily Tomlin. His song "I'd Like to Hate Myself in the Morning," was sung in Judy Garland's last American TV appearance. And Meyer's memoir, Heartbreaker, was about his attempt to rescue Garland from her demons. So why, you might ask, has he written a novel, casting her as the heroine in a 1943 spy story, and why should we care? I actually think this novel is not about someone who knew Garland "cashing in" on the relationship. I believe Meyer's novel is a act of friendship, a tribute to the very positive, endearing qualities Garland possessed, including a strength of character that made her addictions more sad. In this book, Judy's courage, her sense of adventure and great humor, make her a heroine for any time. Though I'm not a fan of Judy Garland, beyond enjoying the Oz movie, and I dislike the maudlin cult around her memory, in this novel I liked her as a personality.

In Operation Ruby Slipper we meet Garland at 21, feeling her way toward adulthood, though she's old enough to have affairs, drink, and take "Dex" (given by the studio to keep her weight down). This Garland enjoys her work with Mickey Rooney, her fame, and all the studio perks--clothes, cars, champagne. Above all, she enjoys that her singing gives pleasure. She likes having fans and being admired. Judy's wise to the studio and the movie world, but she's not jaded about life. Garland is innocent, curious about people. Enthusiasm animates her. Yet she quickly sizes people up, comparing them to characters or actors. Situations call to mind plots of movies. When people talk, she thinks of dialogue, sounds evoke lyrics.

Meyer's Judy has wit and laughter that punctures pretense. She can also be filled with compassion for a "down" friend. Mercurial is the word used to describe the star's mood shifts, referencing her astrological sign, Gemini. The mercurial thing may be accurate but it's a bit annoying, along with the nn...sound she makes throughout the book, when she's insecure. I'm more interested, when Meyer puts her in action. This happens with a mysterious summons to Washington. She's asked to serve her country on a spy mission. Judy rises to the occasion. A bit far-fetched but it's made plausible. She's asked because a reclusive Nazi Physicist is a fan. The American Office of Strategic Services needs a photo of him and she's given a shoe with a concealed camera. There's no time to waste, he's developing a nuclear-powered battery for Hitler's u-boats, who knows what's next!

Judy's mission is more than fun and games, though we're treated to a flight on Howard Hughes luxurious plane with Steinbeck and Martha Gellhorn. She's given a packet of information but no training. She also receives a strange dental cap, "supposed to help her in a tight place." Judy's patronized in this, as she is, at first, by almost all the men she comes in contact with, from the Secret Service, Jeremy, her handler and accompanist, Rudi, the pivotal double agent, variou Nazis, who all assume as a pampered star and a young woman, she's not smart or capable. She of course takes their measure and they regret their errors.

All the harrowing details of being a spy in a war zone and the ongoing crises, Judy handles with creative flair. Both shrewd and intuitive, what does her in, true to character, is her emotional vulnerability and need for love. In this novel, she no sooner finds it, then the devastating reality of war, destroys her romance. When she finally meets her Physicist, he's a gentle sad man, the only one in the novel who on first meeting fully appreciates her--and he's gay. By the end, Meyer has Judy learn the lessons she perhaps missed in real life. She stands up to General Patton, leverages her photo of the Physicist into a meeting with Eisenhower, and figures she can now stand up to Louis Mayer. This Judy has experienced her capability in dire circumstances. She understands about power and won't be victimized. She's not older but far wiser. When she meets Minnelli, you get the idea this young woman will really make it.

I took this fantasy, as a friend's wish for what might have been--based on the best of who Garland was. She made a fun heroine. This novel is obviously recommended for fans of Garland and old Hollywood. It may also appeal to WWII buffs, who like spy novels. And, because this book depicts the world of a closeted Nazi who is also a perceptive scientist, it may hold particular interest for a gay audience.