the short and tragic life of robert peace

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs was released in the fall, and I just couldn’t wait any longer to get my hands on it. My first book of 2015 was borrowed from the library and is a clear 5-star read. From Goodreads:

Robert Peace was born outside Newark in a ghetto known as “Illtown.” His unwed mother worked long hours in a kitchen. His charismatic father was later convicted of a double murder. Peace’s intellectual brilliance and hard-won determination earned him a full scholarship to Yale University. At college, while majoring in molecular biophysics and biochemistry, he straddled the world of academia and the world of the street, never revealing his full self in either place. Upon graduation from Yale, he went home to teach at the Catholic high school he’d attended, slid into the drug trade, and was brutally murdered at age thirty.

That’s the short version of Robert Peace’s life. The long version, the complete version, is this remarkable tour de force by Jeff Hobbs, a talented young novelist who was Peace’s college roommate. Hobbs attended Peace’s funeral, reached out to his friends from both Yale and Newark, and ultimately decided to write this harrowing and beautiful account of his life.

This book. Sigh. I loved it, meaning… I thought it was brilliantly written and I feel privileged to have had a chance to learn about Robert Peace—the son, student, friend, man. He lived a troubled life, and my heart ached each time Rob returned to dealing drugs. No one in the book is perfect, everyone is complex and layered as I’m sure they are in actuality. Jackie Peace was especially inspiring in her quest to break the cycle of poverty for her son. I admired Rob’s tenacity and commitment to his family, but cringed at his rigid hubris and chagrin towards his accomplishments and natural aptitude—he was obviously walking a line between two starkly different worlds and couldn’t find how to reconcile them.

As a middle-class white person, I can’t fathom the life Rob lived. I feel awkward and unqualified to make declarations about this book (notably written by a white person) being a statement on race and socioeconomic status in a broader sense… I’m not sure it means to be that, even. Contextually, it’s impossible to not feel the racial, financial, and societal circumstances Rob lived in, but more simply this is a poignant portrait of a gifted yet troubled individual. But reading this book made me think more about nature vs. nurture on an individual level and more broadly how race, class, and wealth status can exist as barriers in very real, very debilitating ways.

Hobbs doesn’t grandstand, but rather presents Rob’s actions in a straightforward manner without judgement. Was Rob Peace’s life important? How could someone with so much natural intelligence and rare, fortuitous opportunities (considering his origins) squander them with poor decision after poor decision? What would Rob’s life have been like if his father, who loomed so largely in his son’s world, never went to prison and wasn’t involved in the drug trade? What does Rob’s untimely and violent death mean? Readers are left to their own conclusions and speculations. What if, what if. If Hobbs wasn’t a friend, would Rob Peace’s biography ever have been written?

My favorite books are those that make me feel deeply, think critically, and learn something. The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace did just that, and more. I highly recommend it.

Read from December 29, 2014 to January 9, 2015.

4 thoughts on “the short and tragic life of robert peace

  1. This looks like an interesting read. I grew up in circumstances that involved class issues and I have often struggled with a sense of wanting to get out of that way of life and the way my family see the world, but also feeling a sense of loyalty to them and unworthiness in myself. I suppose a lot of people struggle with this inner conflict. Thank you for the recommendation.

    • It’s obvious Rob had a deep love and fierce loyalty for his family. I mean, from what I gleaned reading this, he also had issues with abandonment and a feeling of obligation to provide… It’s hard to say what Rob felt though, about anything, since he was very guarded about his feelings and any inner turmoil with which he was dealing, about anything. He is still an enigma to me, as it appears he was to many. Fascinating, affecting book.

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