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Sammy & Juliana in Hollywood

San Antonio Express-News

Book Review: From the 60s, with love, angst

In Hollywood, there are no fancy shops or hotels. You wont see famous actors or musicians around. There are no big houses or expensive cars cruising the streets. Poverty casts a pall over everyday life. Things are pretty bleak in Hollywood. But sometimes, on a clear night, the stars do shine brightly.

This is the Hollywood of Las Cruces, N.M., in 1969. In his latest novel, Sammy & Juliana in Hollywood, New Mexico native (and former Catholic priest) Benjamin Alire Senz exquisitely captures the mood and voice of a community, a culture and a generation. Sammy is a student at Las Cruces High, and the tension of war and racial unrest is thick in the air. Hes a bookwormish loner who lives with his little sister and dad in a small house in the barrio of Hollywood.

There arent too many things to look forward to in his life, but Juliana is one of them. Shes smart and beautiful and the whole town thinks shes a tramp. Sammy doesnt care, he loves her, and even though she doesnt say it, he knows she loves him. But then, at the beginning of a turn of events filled with tragedy and painful lessons, Sammy loses Juliana and is relegated to continue high school and beyond without her. Through the magic of Senzs words, readers are allowed to ride along with Sammy in a time of turmoil mixed with teen angst. Death seems to have it out for Sammy, and he always has to bear witness to it: the drugged-out friend, the schoolmate drafted to Vietnam.

Senz brings the isolation of the desert town of Las Cruces into the painfully bright light of reality; its a self-contained place, and dreams that reach past its borders are considered too big to ever come true. In this context, he gives Sammy an incredible voice. You will find no superfluous writing here, only the raw talk of a young Chicano struggling with ethical, religious and emotional challenges. The imagery is so vivid, youll find yourself searching your mind for your own memory, a similar situation in a similar space and time. Senz, who is a professor at the University of Texas-El Paso, seems to get more real here than in previous novels, the complicated web of spiritually and physically connected people in Carry Me Like Water and the psychological drama The House of Forgetting.

Sammy & Juliana comes straight from the streets and the times. Sammy just isnt on the cusp of manhood, hes on the edge of an often violent and frustrating world that demands difficult choices and sacrifice. And Senzs lyrical prose provides the soundtrack to that tumultuous life borne of the barrio of a small town.

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