Jeff Schnader’s novel The Serpent Papers is about the completion of Joseph Bell’s soul. This battle is fought within and without, and the outcome determines whether his soul lives or dies. It is not a Manichean question if Joseph Bell—call him J-Bee—son of a rear admiral and raised to be a warrior, will follow in his father’s footsteps, as if Darwinian succession is central to his autobiography. J-Bee will strike out on his own; he will not allow his father to decide for him. He is eighteen years old.
J-Bee matriculates at Columbia University in the fall of 1971, the year after the Ohio National Guard killed four unarmed students at Kent State University during a peace rally against the Vietnam War. In 1971, the United States is as polarized as it has ever been, and protests and marches occur daily at colleges and universities across the country. Protests that began in the mid-60s continue unabated in the early ‘70s, and J-Bee is part of this history in the “hotbed of radicalism, den of iniquity,” as the Sisters of St Eustace name it.
During his first year at Columbia, J-Bee’s soul is tested. Gilly, his boyhood friend and now a soldier in the killing fields of Vietnam, teaches J-Bee that the violent id of his psyche can transition to an existential quest. Margo and Bloom, two characters built into the thematic structure as essential harbingers of what is to come, push him toward this journey of enlightenment. J-Bee confesses: “As my metamorphosis progressed, I came out of the darkness to emerge as a being who rejoiced in the sun, on the verge of understanding, though not yet enlightened; possibility of satori was palpable.”
Novels typically have a main plot and subordinate themes, but the themes in The Serpent Papers merge into one plot—not one theme usurps the privilege of the others. One could say that the plot is the serpent papers themselves; certainly they are intrinsic to the innermost secret of the novel, but without the themes feeding this secret, there would be no enlightened soul named J-Bee. Perhaps it is Schnader’s gift that the various themes are not competitive with each other but instead lift up the story to an equivalent structure; in other words, the structural body of The Serpent Papers is so intricately bound that no theme is an interloper.
The interdependent themes presuppose the coherence of the novel, just as the themes emerge in increments of insight through the characters uniquely equipped to carry the meaning, as if the synergy among the various elements were established from the outset. Certainly, it is no accident that the five themes, through the coherent structure and interlocking plot, move J-Bee toward the enlightenment he seeks. He is no longer the mystified onlooker or angry man.
The five characters—Jerry, The Sisters of St Eustace, Gilly, Margo, and Bloom—contest the one-plot, main-character construction of the novel. J-Bee is the narrator, the character who plays a starring role, but the five named characters, and the themes relevant to J-Bee’s reconstructed self, surmount the typical construction of a main character, one plot. These characters are instrumental in J-Bee’s discerning the meaning of the serpent* of the apocalypse, his dream of the green snake, “the image of the four-legged serpent emblazoned in my brain. And then I was in front of a mirror, and the serpent was there, and he was me.”
The story of Jerry is as sad and unequivocal an outcome as themes go, and it alone reinforces the premise of multiple themes, one plot. J-Bee never gets over the freak accident that kills his deaf younger brother, watching, as if in a film, two bigger kids shout obscenities at the child and chase him onto a busy street where first a delivery truck and then a second car crush him and his bike. J-Bee stands by helplessly, the child he promised to protect, “the poor inert body” of his brother, “lying small on the asphalt, thin, broken and now forever alone.” J-Bee plots his revenge against his brother’s killers; it is, as he tells Margo, why he chose Columbia, where he “imagined the forces of Good and Evil would come face to face and battle for” his soul. He never forgets the unreported felony he commits, which, when he looks back forty years later, has had the “single most powerful impact” on his soul.
Like Jerry, the Sisters of St Eustace contribute to the premise of the multiple themes through their relentless, systemic abuse of the young J-Bee. The Sisters are redundant in their merciless violence, and J-Bee lives with his unbearable anger toward them; the beatings inflict bodily harm and mental anguish, even as he tells his father they are causing permanent damage to his soul. His father instructs him to suffer the pain—it will make him a better man. Perhaps his father identifies with the Sisters; he is himself guilty of thrashing his older son to make him a better, stronger, fiercer and more powerful warrior. J-Bee never forgives his father for allowing such beatings to continue at St Eustace, never mind his father’s ugly abuse toward his teenage son.
The third theme is about Gilly, who grows up with J-Bee and attends St Eustace, witnessing firsthand the violence perpetrated by the Sisters. Gilly’s theme is as equivalent to the plot of The Serpent Papers as that of the Sisters and of Jerry, but the parallel paths that he and J-Bee traverse are opposite: Whereas J-Bee matriculates at Columbia in 1971, Gilly signs up to go to Vietnam. Their different paths seem inscribed on their personalities and their trajectories diverge: Gilly becomes a killer in Vietnam, and J-Bee takes care of his soul at Columbia: “I was on a battleground making history, and the only question left was whether I would make a stand or forever equivocate on the greatest issue of the times. How would I face the moment? . . . Would I fight to kill my oppressors, or would I walk forward, head held high, a nonviolent soldier ready to fall for the cause but never to kill for it?” Gilly had no such choice. The irony of this passage is clarified when Gilly brings home what he’s learned in the killing fields to protect J-Bee from mortal harm.
Margo and Bloom, two characters, two individual themes, converge at some point to become one theme with two characters. They are responsible for forcing the question: Who is the voice at the Apocalypse Café in the basement of St Paul’s Chapel, where J-Bee hears, for the first time, the words of “The Serpent—patron saint of The Apocalypse”: “I have a confession to make. It’s been on my mind for some time . . . . It was a crime I committed . . . It had to be done—it was a blow I struck for freedom, for America . . . . Beware of wars of questionable merit, born of dubious motives from the minds of scheming men of power.”
J-Bee meets Margo at the Gold Rail, an unkempt tavern where she works and Columbia students hang out to drink cheap beer and eat cheeseburgers and fat steak fries. The Gold Rail is where J-Bee sees Bloom for the first time and overhears him arguing with Bornes and MacNeish, acquaintances of J-Bee’s, giving the two students a rough time about war—Bloom, the initiated warrior awarded the purple heart and the Congressional Medal for his service in World War II. At the Gold Rail, J-Bee and Bloom become friends, Bloom the mentor to the young man, taking an interest in his studies, his life before New York, what’s eating him inside. J-Bee confides in the old man: “I felt a resistance to telling Bloom the secrets of my personal life while, at the same time, I felt the tug of my heart as it whispered to me that I might have a hope of being understood—of understanding myself—if I merely took the chance of confiding in another human being, another beating heart behind a kind and understanding face.”
As it is with Bloom, so it is with Margo that J-Bee begins the journey of his soul. Margo, a student at Columbia, older by a few years, a longtime antiwar protester, planning to go into law, teaches J-Bee how to love, how love feels, and how love goes away. Because of Margo, J-Bee finds himself surrounded by the elite NYPD Tactical Police Force (TPF) at an antiwar protest on Columbia’s Van Am Quad—the second anniversary of Kent State. The TPF traps the protesting students and charges them, knocking them down, kicking and punching and hitting them with their batons. J-Bee is injured, arrested, jailed, and bailed out by Margo. J-Bee has experienced beatings before, but his epiphany is a new experience: His “eyes opened to a newness in the world.” He understands who he is and what he has to do.
Sometimes, authors are wise enough to place the element of foreshadowing in just the right spots, spreading the clues so that readers find release in guessing what the foreshadowing augers. Such is the motive of foreshadowing behind the stories of Margo and Bloom in The Serpent Papers—extensive, intricate stories that parallel the themes found in the stories of Jerry, the Sisters of St Eustace, and Gilly. At some point, however, the individual stories intersect to create the complete plot in this theme-driven novel. The Serpent Papers finds the human soul.
*From Latin serpens, serpent – from present participle of serpere, to creep
Jeff Schnader was at Columbia University in 1972 where he participated in sit-ins, marches and protests against the Vietnam War. He took part in demonstrations in front of Hamilton Hall where students were beaten by N.Y. Tactical Police in full battle regalia. He graduated with a BA in physics. His short story, The Champion, won first prize in the 2020 Annual Quills Contest. His novel, The Serpent Papers, which will be published in February 2022 by The Permanent Press, was a short-listed finalist in the 2021 Blue Moon Novel Competition. Chapters of The Serpent Papers and his short story, The Oma, were published previously in THE WRITE LAUNCH. After graduating from Columbia, he received his medical degree from McGill University and trained at Johns Hopkins. He retired as full Professor of Medicine after authoring over 50 scientific publications and chairing & speaking at over 130 national medical conferences. He was a frequent guest on NPR’s “Sound Health” and has been awarded for teaching and for editing a medical journal. He worked full-time in the Department of Veteran’s Affairs for 22 years, serving American war veterans, including those of The Vietnam War.