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<< Back to Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood

Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood

Albuquerque Journal

In Hollywood, there are no fancy shops or hotels. You won't 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 not the Hollywood of Southern California. In Benjamin Alire Sáenz's novel, "Sammy & Juliana," Hollywood is the name of a barrio in Las Cruces, N.M. Sáenz, a former Catholic priest, is himself from the Las Cruces area.
In this his latest novel, set in 1969, Sáenz 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. He's a bookworm-ish loner who lives with his little sister and dad in a small house in the barrio.
There aren't too many things to look forward to in his life, but Juliana is one of them. She's smart and beautiful— and the whole town thinks she's a tramp.
Sammy doesn't care, he loves her. And even though she doesn't 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 Sáenz's prose, 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 and sent to Vietnam.
Sáenz brings the isolation of the desert town of Las Cruces into the painfully bright light of reality; it's a self-contained place, and dreams that reach past its borders are viewed as too big to ever come true.
In this context, he gives Sammy an incredible voice. You will find no superlative writing here, only the raw talk of a young Chicano struggling with ethical, religious and emotional challenges.
The imagery is so vivid you will find yourself searching your mind for your own memory, a similar situation in a similar space and time.
Sáenz, a professor at the University of Texas-El Paso, seems to get more real here than in his previous novels, "Carry Me Like Water" with its complicated web of spiritually and physically connected people, and the psychological drama of "The House of Forgetting."
Sammy just isn't on the cusp of manhood, he's on the edge of an often violent and frustrating world that demands difficult choices and sacrifice.
And Sáenz's lyrical prose provides the soundtrack to that tumultuous life born of a small town barrio.

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