The first wave of baby boomers — now in their 60s and 70s — came of age during the Vietnam era, a seminal epoch for them, a defining one for the nation.
Many novelists have explored that experience, but few as perceptively and personally as does Jeff Schnader in “The Serpent Papers.”
Son of a bullying admiral and an alcoholic mother, protective elder brother to a severely hearing-impaired boy, abuse victim of Catholic school nuns, Joseph “J-Bee” Bell grows up in Norfolk.
His best friend, Gilbert “Gilly” O’Daly, volunteers for Vietnam. But J-Bee chooses to enroll at Columbia University in 1971. Among others, he meets Margo, a senior, waitress and political activist; Billy, a gentle hippie; Bloom, a World War II veteran; Milo, a privileged preppy and an incipient drug lord; and the Serpent, who holds forth on the war while concealing his identity behind a screen at a campus hangout.
“I had one foot in the world of my fathers, the bastion of the military and the Catholic Church,” J-Bee tells us, “and the other foot out of the box in a land I had yet to recognize fully, the rarefied realm of ivory towers where professors smoked pipes and conjectured, everything lost in a smoggy haze of thought, a citadel of turbulent intellect and ideology.”
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Worlds collide, especially when Gilly, on furlough, visits J-Bee in New York City. What follows is the climax to a tale rendered with intensity of purpose, vigor of prose, authenticity of time and place, and depth of characterization, particularly that of J-Bee.
Schnader, a resident of Norfolk and a graduate of Columbia, draws heavily on history and personal experience in “The Serpent Papers,” his first full-length novel. He’s also a professor of medicine and a physician who has worked in hospitals for veterans.
As he develops the events that lead to J-Bee’s ultimate decision of whether to become a warrior (he has a penchant for violence) or a protester (he embraces many facets of the counterculture), Schnader engages the reader in J-Bee’s struggle of conscience with telling detail and emotional impact.
Jay Strafford, a retired Richmond Times-Dispatch editor and writer, now lives in Florida.