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The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League Paperback – July 28, 2015
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An Amazon Best Book of the Month, September 2014: To read The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, a meticulous and heartfelt account of a brilliant black student from the poverty-stricken streets of Newark, is to see the best of the American dream lived and ultimately, tragically, lost. Peace’s mother endured great sacrifices to ensure that her gifted son would meet his full potential. His father, until his arrest for murder when Rob was seven, dedicated himself to helping his son learn and mature. Rob was a popular, straight-A student who played on the water polo team (his mother scraped up enough money to send him to parochial school), and upon graduating he was rewarded with a scholarship to Yale. Although he continued to thrive academically in college, growing up in the second largest concentration of African-Americans living under the poverty line created barriers that even one as gifted as Robert Peace could not fully surmount. This is a riveting and heartbreaking read, as Rob Peace seems always to have been on the outside—the resented geek in the hood, and the inner city black man in the Ivy League. –Chris Schluep
Guest Review of The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Michelle Alexander
This is a book you will not forget. It will stay with you, haunt you. Strangely, it may even inspire you. You may not realize how good it is until days or weeks after you’ve finished it. The truth may dawn on you when you notice that you keep talking about the book with friends or family or the person sitting next to you on the bus. Perhaps you’ll begin to think that the book was more than good – truly great – when you find yourself thinking about Robert Peace as you’re drifting off to sleep and then find that he’s still on your mind in the morning.
This book was born from grief, but it pulses with the life of an unforgettable young man. The story is deftly told by Robert Peace’s white college roommate and good friend, Jeff Hobbs, someone who knew Robert well, but didn’t. Written with great compassion yet unflinching honesty, the book invites you to contemplate the meaning of one man’s life—a life that could’ve turned out so differently.
The question that will tease and torment you, but can never, ever be answered, will linger: Why? Why would an astonishingly brilliant young black man who worked so tirelessly as a teen, overcoming incredible odds to get out of the ‘hood, out of crushing poverty, and off to Yale, and who excelled once he was there – academically as well as socially – why would he forfeit all of the opportunity that was now waiting for him, the shining path that lay ahead beckoning him? Why would Robert Peace toss it all away so that he could return to his ‘hood, deal drugs, and try to make it on a path that was so obviously doomed? Why?
My husband read the book because I could not stop talking about it. We disagree completely on why Robert Peace chose to be drug dealer rather than a genius scientist who cures cancer or wins a Nobel Prize—possibilities that do not seem entirely fanciful given his ac-ademic prowess and his passion for science. My husband views Robert as a tragic Greek fig-ure, someone who was on the brink of greatness but whose personal flaws and weaknesses ulti-mately got the best of him. Some of the people who knew Robert best apparently have a similar view; they think that he couldn’t shake his dream of being “the Man,” making it big without the hard work and discipline that is required of a more traditional path.
None of those views sit right with me. Robert Peace was about as hard-working and disciplined as they come. And he showed no great interest in wealth or “bling.” He sold mari-juana for pragmatic reasons—to make money to pay for school, support his mother, buy stuff he thought he needed, save for the future, and fund legitimate business ventures. I cannot pretend to know why Robert Peace chose the path he did, and it is entirely possible that he, himself, would not have been able to answer the “why” question even if he had been asked moments before he was killed. But I suspect the why had more to do with his virtues than his vices.
Yet Robert did not want to leave anyone behind. Above all things, he was loyal. He was loyal to his father who was serving time in prison for murder. He was loyal to his family, to his friends, to his neighborhood. He did not want to go on ahead. He wanted to make it with them, and be one of them. If he was going to make it big, he wanted it to make it with the people he loved.
But we, as a society, will not allow for that. Only a chosen few are allowed to escape from the ‘hood, and when they have their chance to make a break for it, they’re supposed to do it alone. They’re supposed to run away from their old neighborhood, away from their old friends, and become someone new—someone who likes socializing with other Ivy Leaguers and chatting about vacation destinations, private schools, and career paths. But that wasn’t Robert. Robert preferred to eat with the cafeteria workers rather than with his classmates at Yale. He felt he belonged to them. He didn’t respect or admire the over-privileged, spoiled kids at Yale; he resented them. He did not want to become them. He was open-hearted and able to make friends with anyone – and he did make many friends at Yale – but who he really loved, who he really cared about, could be found in his old neighborhood. He knew who he was when he came home; everything else was foreign, everywhere else he was fronting.
If there was some path to great “success” that could’ve included his old friends and his old world – one that did not require him to abandon his core identity and all that mattered most – I believe Robert would be alive today. I cannot prove this. And I will confess that my views are influenced by the young people that I have mentored over the years, young folks that I’ve tried to persuade to leave the ‘hood but wouldn’t or couldn’t. I remember once talking with other mentors about how frustrated we were that so many kids “kept returning to the block” or “kept running with the same crowd” when opportunity existed elsewhere. But now I see that the impulse to return and to leave no one behind – not childhood friends, not aunts or cousins or un-cles – may reflect more virtue than vice. It might be love. That is not to say that Robert did not have major flaws. We all do. But something more than character flaws killed him.
This is a beautifully simple book. It does not preach; it offers no answers. But it raises many questions I believe we should be asking ourselves, including why we afford only a tiny number of young people in certain communities defined by race and class an opportunity to live their dreams, and require, as the price for their ticket, leaving behind the very people and places and identities that have given their lives meaning.
Robert’s friend Oswaldo lost his mind—literally—as he struggled to make the transi-tion from his segregated, ghettoized community to the halls of Yale. This story ends with Os-waldo surviving his institutionalization in a mental ward and going on to be a “success,” while Robert is shot and killed in a house with his best friends, all of whom were scheming and dreaming of making it together somehow. Read this extraordinary book and decide for yourself who or what killed Robert Peace. I am fairly certain that more of us are to blame than Robert and the man who pulled the trigger.
"Many institutions that provide bridges to realization of The American Dream conflate the aspirant’s yearning to participate fully with a desire to leave everything behind. The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace reveals the devastating consequences of this assumption. There are few road maps for students who carry our much-valued diversity, and few tools for those who remain ignorant of the diverse riches in their midst. Jeff Hobbs has made an important contribution to the literature for all of us. He shows what high quality journalism can aspire to in its own yearning for justice—the urgency of taking a full and accurate account of irreplaceable loss, so we don’t keep making the same mistakes over and over again." (Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, author of Random Family)
“Mesmeric... [Hobbs] asks the consummate American question: Is it possible to reinvent yourself, to sculpture your own destiny?... That one man can contain such contradictions makes for an astonishing,tragic story. In Hobbs’s hands, though, it becomes something more: an interrogation of our national creed of self-invention.... [The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace] deserves a turn in the nation’s pulpit from which it can beg us to see the third world America in our midst.” (The New York Times Book Review)
"A haunting work of nonfiction.... Mr. Hobbs writes in a forthright but not florid way about a heartbreaking story.” (The New York Times)
"I can hardly think of a book that feels more necessary, relevant, and urgent." (Grantland)
"The Short Tragic Life of Robert Peace is a book that is as much about class as it is race. Peace traveled across America’s widening social divide, and Hobbs’ book is an honest, insightful and empathetic account of his sometimes painful, always strange journey." (The Los Angeles Times)
"Devastating. It is a testament to Hobbs’s talents that Peace’s murder still shocks and stings even though we are clued into his fate from the outset....a first-rate book. [Hobbs] has a tremendous ability to empathize with all of his characters without romanticizing any of them." (Boston Globe)
"It is hard to imagine a writer with no personal connection to Peace being able to generate as much emotional traction in this narrative as Hobbs does, to care as much about portraying fully the depth and intricacy of Peace’s life, his friends and the context of it all... it is an enormous writing feat.. fresh, compelling." (The Washington Post)
"[An] intimate biography... Hobbs uses [Peace's] journey as an opportunity to discuss race and class, but he doesn’t let such issues crowd out a sense of his friend’s individuality...By the end, the reader, like the author, desperately wishes that Peace could have had more time." (The New Yorker)
“Heartbreaking.” (O Magazine)
"Captivating... a smart meditation on the false promise of social mobility." (Bloomsberg BusinessWeek)
"Nuanced and shattering.” (People magazine, "Best Books of Fall")
"The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace is a powerful book meant to haunt us with the question that plagued everyone who knew Peace. Hobbs has the courage not to counterfeit an answer leaving us with the haunting question: Why?" (The New York Daily News)
"The Short and Tragic Life [of Robert Peace] tackles some important topics: the swamp of poverty; the tantalizing hope of education; the question of whether anyone can truly invent a life or whether fate is, in fact, dictated by birth...[Its] account of worlds colliding will leave nagging questions for many readers which might be all to the good." (The Seattle Times)
"A haunting American tragedy for our times." (Entertainment Weekly)
"Can a man transcend the circumstances into which he’s born? Can he embody two wildly divergent souls? To what degree are all of us, more or less, slaves to our environments? Few lives put such questions into starker relief than that of one Robert DeShaun Peace... As Hobbs reveals in tremendously moving and painstaking detail, [Peace] may have never had a chance." (San Francisco Chronicle)
"Mr. Hobbs chronicles Peace’s brief 30 years on earth with descriptive detail and penetrating prose...
He paints a picture of a young man who was complex, like most of us, and depicted both his faults and admirable qualities equally. It is up to the reader to decide if Peace was an Ivy League grad caught up in a life of crime or just a victim of circumstances... Mr. Hobbs’ empathetic narrative gives readers an opportunity to view his life beyond a stereotype." (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
"With novelistic detail and deep insight, Hobbs... registers the disadvantages his friend faced while avoiding hackneyed fatalism and sociology... reveals a man whose singular experience and charisma made him simultaneously an outsider and a leader in both New Hampshire and Newark... This is a classic tragedy of a man who, with the best intentions, chooses an ineluctable path to disaster." (Publishers Weekly, STARRED review)
"Ambitious, moving...Hobbs combines memoir, sociological analysis and urban narrative elements, producing a perceptive page-turner... An urgent report on the state of American aspirations and a haunting dispatch from forsaken streets." (Kirkus, STARRED review)
"Peace navigated the clashing cultures of urban poverty and Ivy League privilege, never quite finding a place where his particular brand of nerdiness and cool could coexist... [Hobbs] set out to offer a full picture of a very complicated individual. Writing with the intimacy of a close friend, Hobbs slowly reveals Peace as far more than a cliché of amazing potential squandered." (Booklist, STARRED review)
"One part biography and one part study of poverty in the United States, Hobbs's account of his friend's life and death highlights how our pasts shape us, and how our eternal search for a place of safety and belonging can prove to be dangerous. Peace's life was indeed short and tragic, but Hobbs aims to guarantee that it will not go unmarked." (Shelf Awareness, STARRED review)
"The resulting portrait of Peace is nuance, contradictory, elusive, and probing... At its core, the story compels readers to question how much one can really know about another person... VERDICT: An intelligent, provocative book, recommended for any biography lover." (Library Journal)
“If The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace were a novel, it would be a moral fable for our times; as nonfiction, it is one of the saddest and most devastating books I’ve ever read, a tour-de-force of compassion and insight, an exquisite elegy for a person, for a time of life, for a valid hope that nonetheless failed. It is also a profound reflection on a society that professes to value social mobility, but that often does not or cannot imbue privilege with justice. It is written with clarity, precision, and tenderness, without judgment, with immense kindness, and with a quiet poetry. Few books transform us, but this one has changed me forever.” (Andrew Solomon, author of Far From the Tree and Noonday Demon)
“Jeff Hobbs has written a mesmerizingly beautiful book, a mournful, yet joyous celebration of his friend Robert Peace, this full-throated, loving, complicated man whose journey feels simultaneously heroic and tragic. This book is an absolute triumph—of empathy and of storytelling. Hobbs has accomplished something extraordinary: he’s made me feel like Peace was a part of my life, as well. Trust me on this, Peace is someone you need to get to know. He’ll leave you smiling. His story will leave you shaken.” (Alex Kotlowitz, author of There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America)
“A poignant and powerful can’t-put-it-down book about friendship and loss. The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace takes you on a nail-biting, heartbreaking journey that will leave you moved, shaken, and ultimately changed. In this spectacularly written first work of non-fiction, Jeff Hobbs creates a singular and searing portrait of an unforgettable life.” (Jennifer Gonnerman, author of Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett)
Top customer reviews
The only reason I gave it four stars instead of five was because the author seemed to completely miss something obvious: Robert Peace was clearly an addict and probably an alcoholic. The book describes his daily drinking and drug use and hangovers, noting the huge quantities he ingested, and the progressively greater quantities he required as time went on. And at one point, the author does mention, almost in passing, that Robert considered himself a "high functioning" addict. But that's not the kind of thing that merits just a passing mention. The inability to form a healthy intimate relationship, the emotional development stalled at the age (adolescence) that drug use began, the choice of menial work that you can do even when out-of-it, the grandiose plans coexisting with a profound fear of change: all of it is classic Addiction 101.
In fairness to the author, who is still young, I can see how he would miss the obvious truth staring everyone in the face. A lot of people in Robert Peace's orbit -- the Yale set very much included -- drank alcoholically and abused drugs, too. So even though Robert's using stood out, the author perhaps mistook it as a difference of degree rather than kind. And of course, the other issues that may have served to obscure the addiction were real, too, and serious: the anguish of not quite belonging in either of two very different worlds, the loss of his father to prison and then to the grave, the huge expectations placed on him by himself and others, and the tremendous psychospiritual difficulty of doing better than your parents, even if they want you to. By his own accounting, Robert used drugs to cope with the chronic anxiety of his own schizophregenic existence. The problem is that of all the very serious and legitimate difficulties of his life, there was not a single one that his addiction did not make worse. I hope his soul has found the peace that so eluded him in life. There but for the grace of God . . .
The story of Robert Peace is also one of a senseless death. Robert Peace grew up in an environment of limited means and opportunities. His father went to prison for murder when Robert was very young. But Robert had a sharp intellect. He overcame the obstacles before him and excelled academically. So much so that a benefactor offered to pay Robert's full college expenses for whichever school he desired. That offer led him to Yale.
Since you know from the title of the book that things don't end well for Robert, the bulk of the book recounts the events leading up to that tragic ending. The author was Robert's roommate at Yale. After learning of his friend's unexpected death, he examines Robert's past to try and make sense of how someone with so much promise ended up a murder victim.
Early on there are hints that drugs and drug dealing will play a role in Robert's demise. Despite nearly being thrown out of Yale for selling marijuana, Robert continues to do so. After he graduates, he continues to dabble in the small time drug trade while still trying to figure out his path forward.
While retracing Robert's steps before and after graduation from Yale, the author touches on topics such as race, class, and poverty. The result is a well-rounded examination of one person's triumphs and failures.
In the end, Robert's death plays out like a scene from Breaking Bad with Robert as Walter White. And just like that, another life is snuffed out.
Jeff Hobbs wrote this book with honesty and genuine love of his friend. Throughout the book, it was evident that Hobbs was writing Rob's story as a way to memorialize Rob's influence in the world as well as his remarkable story that could have easily been twisted by perspectives and opinions of strangers.
I liked how Hobbs organized his writing of Rob's story. None of it felt like it dragged and each sequence of events was in brief sections per chapter rather than a never ending narrative. I also found that Hobbs highlighted the complexities of socioeconomic status, environment, and poverty coupled with the determination of a mother, the gift of education that both opened doors and burdened Rob, and the influence of where you are born. However, Rob's story is written through a lens. Perhaps it was because Hobbs was born from what can be described as an entirely different world than Rob (which Hobbs acknowledges) or that he was not present for most of Rob's life or if this was done for the benefit of the majority of America to understand Rob's circumstances.
Overall, Rob's story is interesting. Moreover, it is best to read without judgment or else you run the risk of imposing your values on a soul who was trying to find his place in the world.