Including the one with the famous sign, there are 10 cities in America named Hollywood. There’s a Hollywood in England and one in Ireland. Hollywood is also the fictionalized name of a barrio in Las Cruces. That is the Hollywood where Ben Saenz sets his new book. Saenz, a native of Las Cruces and the author of children’s books, short stories, poems, and two other well-received novels, teaches in the Creative Writing program at UTEP. Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood, though classified as young adult fiction is an absorbing read for anyone.
Set in the late sixties, the novel telescopes seamlessly from a focus on Sammy Santos, an appealing student at Las Cruces High, to his diverse group of friends, obsessed with finding love, and out to the country as a whole as it struggles with Vietnam, drugs, and the changing morays of an unstable period. Sammy’s transition into adulthood, his emotional highs and lows mirror the country’s transition into the latter half of the twentieth century. But Saenz never overdoes it. Like a ballerina whose graceful dancing effortlessly belies her athleticism, Saenz writes as if he is merely documenting the lives of a small segment of America, lifting the cover for us to peer down on the struggles of this group of young adults as they play out before us.