J-Bee, son of a military officer, is raised in a violent milieu during the 1960s. After his little brother is persecuted by bullies, J-Bee commits a retaliatory act of brutality, the nature of which scars him. When his best friend, Gilly, volunteers to fight in Vietnam, J-Bee—repulsed by his own violence—refuses to follow either his father or Gilly into the military. Instead, he matriculates at Columbia in 1971, an era of counterculture, drugs, sex, and rock ’n roll, in order to seek his redemption. While there, he is introduced to the mysterious Serpent who recites in the campus café, and to the politically active Margo who schools him in antiwar politics and the virtues of peace. Although he feels loyalty to his best friend fighting overseas, J-Bee increasingly sympathizes with Margo’s rationale against the war.
Torn between supporting the war or protesting against it, J-Bee’s paradoxical feelings are ignited when his friend Gilly, on furlough from Vietnam, visits him at Columbia. With ratcheting tensions and bullhorns leading students in protest, pro-war and anti-war factions collide in campus riots, and J-Bee makes the choice that defines his life.