The Serpent Papers
The Permanent Press, March 2022
302 pages, $29.95
I recently finished reading The Serpent Papers, a new novel about the Vietnam era by Jeff Schnader, a local retired physician and EVMS professor turned author.
And I can’t stop thinking about it.
College life in America during the peak of the Vietnam War and the student protest movement is the platform on which this tale is based—but the novel’s themes go far beyond.
At a glance, the story appears to be a memoir. But instead, it is historical fiction, heavily informed by Schnader’s background. The result is a coming of age story, full of beautifully drawn complex characters, love as well as angst, surprising twists, dark moments, and ultimately, growth and hope.
I can’t stop thinking about it because I was a student at the University of Maryland during this period, when Schnader and his protagonist, J-Bee, were at Columbia University.
Schnader has painted a full panorama of this late hippy period, including the struggle between the placid peaceniks, the extreme leftist war protesters, the khaki-and-button-down conservative students and the university establishment. All together, he accurately depicts the conflicting cultures and highly charged emotional atmosphere of the time.
Composed in a straightforward and flowing style, the writing is dotted throughout with elegantly graceful passages of prose. The novel is succinctly resolved in a breathtakingly beautiful flourish of Schnader’s pen.
The Serpent Papers brought all of the late ’60s to early ’70s feel back to me—in a very visceral way, since my raw unsettled experiences at College Park were very much the same as Schnader’s re-created time at Columbia. Now, when friends ask what my college years were like, I will tell them to read Schnader’s book.
I recently had the pleasure of meeting the author for coffee. An expected 30-minute chat turned into a two-and-a-half hour conversation.
My first irrepressible question was why did a good Jewish doctor/author make his lead character a Catholic boy from Norfolk? It turns out that Schnader, who later moved to Norfolk, grew up on Long Island in a neighborhood that had been predominantly Irish Catholic, but became Jewish as the previous residents fled. Schnader says it was more interesting to him to expand on the Catholic experience.
Still, Jewish characters, and more importantly, Jewish values are strong subtexts of Schnader’s novel. I’m not going to reveal any spoilers, but one of my favorite characters is a Jewish war hero who becomes a sort of a wise man on the mountaintop figure for J-Bee.
Schnader, like the main character, in a desire to help and give back to those who sacrificed, worked for many years in the VA hospital system. Like J-Bee, he hopes for peace, but also works to heal the survivors of conflict as he strives to heal a divided nation.
Schnader talks the talk, and more importantly, walks the walk. He may be reached through his website: www.jschnaderauthor.com.
Steve Budman is a commercial photographer who is an occasional contributor to Jewish News of photographs, wine reviews, and now book reviews. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reviewed by Steve Budman