BOOK REVIEW: The Serpent Papers
When he began writing his debut novel, The Serpent Papers, about the Vietnam protests, Jeff Schnader had no way of knowing that the United States would pull out of Afghanistan after 20 years, ending what has been America’s longest war. The announcement of the move late last year once again ignited the controversy over Vietnam, a dubious war whose horrendous casualty count is still being refined. It includes not only Americans who died and were severely wounded but those who came home psychologically impaired, many addicted, to a divisive reception.
It was a desire, a deep-felt need, Schnader says, to try to address that divide between opposition to the Vietnam War and appreciation of the men drafted to fight in it that most motivated him to write The Serpent Papers. The book resonates with significance today, as veterans return from Afghanistan, damaged not only by their service but by mounting criticism that the entire adventure was misguided. If we’re going “to try to heal the whole nation,” Schnader says, we must acknowledge this disparity and recognize the cultural as well as political forces that prompted the war in Indochina over 40 years ago, a war that still haunts those who served as well as those who protested. His book is dedicated to both groups.
Like The Serpent Papers’ protagonist, J-Bee, Schnader participated in sit-ins and the violent resistance to NYC’s armed Tactical Police Force in the early 1970s at Columbia University. It’s to his credit that he shows how J-Bee, a Southern boy who came from a Catholic, conservative, military family — his father was a decorated Rear Admiral — evolved from his privileged childhood in Virginia. The change was prompted by a strong desire to escape the memory of multiple layers of cruelty, trauma and rejection. The abuse inflicted by the Sisters of Eustace and by his increasingly alcoholic father; the accidental death of his younger brother trying to flee bullies, for which J-Bee exacted violent retribution; rejection from a girl, his first love; and finally, at Columbia, falling under the influence of articulate radicals in his dorm and succumbing to the heady seduction of an older co-ed and the sexually loose and drug-infused generation on campus.
Fighting and patriotism — these were the expectations of his father, as well as the ideals of his less well-off best friend, who enlists to go to ‘Nam, but the arguments for and against the draft and the war are fair, the dialogues here authentic. No “types” or cliches stand in for individual beliefs including the words of a mysterious “Serpent” of the book’s title, a man whose invisible voice emerges from a basement in a seedy Broadway bar. Called the “patron saint of The Apocalypse,” the Serpent urges the young to act on their conscience. Oddly enough though, at least to me, he may be the one unconvincing presence in this coming-of-age recollection that seeks to integrate personal and political themes.
Entering Columbia in 1972, one year after the student killings at Kent State, Schnader, like J-Bee who also was not drafted, went to a Canadian medical school, with further work at Johns Hopkins. He then worked in veterans’ hospitals for 22 years. But he wanted to write this novel for a long time, confronting, like his protagonist, the era that changed his life. The Serpent Papers is not a memoir, though it reads like one. It certainly is timely.