The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League

4.4 30
by Jeff Hobbs

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A heartfelt, and riveting biography of the short life of a talented young African-American man who escapes the slums of Newark for Yale University only to succumb to the dangers of the streets—and of one’s own nature—when he returns home.

When author Jeff Hobbs arrived at Yale University, he became fast friends with the man who would be his

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A heartfelt, and riveting biography of the short life of a talented young African-American man who escapes the slums of Newark for Yale University only to succumb to the dangers of the streets—and of one’s own nature—when he returns home.

When author Jeff Hobbs arrived at Yale University, he became fast friends with the man who would be his college roommate for four years, Robert Peace. Robert’s life was rough from the beginning in the crime-ridden streets of Newark in the 1980s, with his father in jail and his mother earning less than $15,000 a year. But Robert was a brilliant student, and it was supposed to get easier when he was accepted to Yale, where he studied molecular biochemistry and biophysics. But it didn’t get easier. Robert carried with him the difficult dual nature of his existence, “fronting” in Yale, and at home.

Through an honest rendering of Robert’s relationships—with his struggling mother, with his incarcerated father, with his teachers and friends and fellow drug dealers—The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace encompasses the most enduring conflicts in America: race, class, drugs, community, imprisonment, education, family, friendship, and love. It’s about the collision of two fiercely insular worlds—the ivy-covered campus of Yale University and Newark, New Jersey, and the difficulty of going from one to the other and then back again. It’s about poverty, the challenges of single motherhood, and the struggle to find male role models in a community where a man is more likely to go to prison than to college. It’s about reaching one’s greatest potential and taking responsibility for your family no matter the cost. It’s about trying to live a decent life in America. But most all the story is about the tragic life of one singular brilliant young man. His end, a violent one, is heartbreaking and powerful and unforgettable.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times - Janet Maslin
…a haunting work of nonfiction with a title that is all too self-explanatory…Mr. Hobbs writes in a forthright but not florid way about a heartbreaking story…[He] does a fascinating job of raising…questions, even though he cannot possibly answer them.
The New York Times Book Review - Anand Giridharadas
Nowadays there is reporting aplenty on the theme of two Americas. The originality of Jeff Hobbs's work lies in finding a man who lived simultaneously in both countries, who thrived and failed at the same time, who escaped his past and didn't…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…As a page turner alone, the story wins. It doesn't need further selling…What is worth adding is that the book will be highly provocative, even irritating, to those who answer the problems of the American underclass with prefab ideological theories and solutions.
Publishers Weekly
A man with seemingly every opportunity loses his way in this compelling biographical saga. Novelist Hobbs (The Tourists) chronicles the life of Peace, who was born in a Newark, N.J., ghetto to an impoverished single mom and a father who went to prison for murder. Thanks to his mother's sacrifices and his extraordinary intellect he went to Yale and got a biology degree but when he returned to Newark after college, he became a drug dealer and was eventually shot to death by rivals. Writing with novelistic detail and deep insight, Hobbs, who was Peace's roommate at Yale, registers the disadvantages his friend faced while avoiding hackneyed fatalism and sociology. Hobbs reveals a man whose singular experience and charisma made him simultaneously an outsider and a leader in both New Haven and Newark, Peace was a pillar of his family and community, superbly capable in both settings, but he could not reconcile their conflicting demands. (The author's indelible portrait of Peace's inner-city neighborhood shows how it could draw him back from the world his talent and education had opened.) This is a classic tragedy of a man who, with the best intentions, chooses an ineluctable path to disaster. Photos. (Sept.)
The New York Times Book Review
“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
"A haunting work of nonfiction.... Mr. Hobbs writes in a forthright but not florid way about a heartbreaking story.”
"I can hardly think of a book that feels more necessary, relevant, and urgent."
Yale Alumni Magazine
"Superb... so carefully constructed that, from the first, the sense of impending tragedy is gripping, and then finally devastating.... The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace is a grave, important book. The death of a young black don of a single mother and an imprisoned father is a subject to which many Americans bring charged preconceptions. Hobbs knows this and he overcomes them--he deepens the crucial national conversation... [he] loved Peace, and so will you."
STARRED review Booklist
"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."
Alex Kotlowitz
“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.”
Andrew Solomon
“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.”
Jennifer Gonnerman
“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.”
Los Angeles Times
"The Tourists sketches, with a light touch, characters who are almost chillingly familiar - They'll either make readers smile or bring back awful memories of the people they learned to put up with in college. Part of what's catching reviewers' eyes is a narrator who in the wrong hands would have been flat or dull but whose plight makes the book irresistible after the first few pages... [he] is appealingly quiet, reserved and observant."
USA Today
"Hobbs...captures the restlessness and ridiculousness of the sushi set's adult-onset angst with note-perfect acuity and a wry sense of humor."
Los Angeles Magazine
"[An] ambitious and darkly contemporary first novel... You don't need to draw the parallels with The Great Gatsby's rootless socialites to hear the slither of snakes in the grass."
The Boston Globe
"An impressive debut in which keen insights are often strewn amid the narrative like shiny pennies on a dirty sidewalk."
O Magazine
Bloomsberg BusinessWeek
"Captivating... a smart meditation on the false promise of social mobility."
"Best Books of Fall" People magazine
"Nuanced and shattering.”
Boston Globe
"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."
The New York Daily News
"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 Seattle Times
"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 Los Angeles Times
"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 Washington Post
"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."
STARRED review Shelf Awareness
"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."
Entertainment Weekly
"A haunting American tragedy for our times."
The New Yorker
"[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."
San Francisco Chronicle
"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."
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
"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."
Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
"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."
Library Journal
The story of Newark-native Robert Peace's journey from poverty to Yale University and ultimately a violent death, as related by his college roommate. (LJ 9/1/14)
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2014-07-16
Ambitious, moving tale of an inner-city Newark kid who made it to Yale yet succumbed to old demons and economic realities. Novelist Hobbs (The Tourists, 2007) combines memoir, sociological analysis and urban narrative elements, producing a perceptive page-turner regarding the life of his eponymous protagonist, also his college roommate. Peace's mother was fiercely independent, working nonstop in hospital kitchens to help aging parents keep their house. His father, a charming hustler, was attentive to Robert until his conviction on questionable evidence in a double murder. Mrs. Peace pushed her bright son toward parochial school, the best course for survival in Newark, already notorious for economic struggles and crime. Compulsively studious, Robert thrived there—a banker alumnus offered to pay his college tuition—and also at Yale. Hobbs contrasts his personal relationship with Robert with a cutting critique of university life, for the privileged and less so, capturing the absurd remove that "model minority" and working-class students experience. At Yale, Peace both performed high-end lab work in his medical major and discreetly dealt marijuana, enhancing his campus popularity, even as he held himself apart: "Rob was incredibly skilled in not showing how he felt [and] at concealing who he was and who he wanted to be." After graduation, Peace drifted, as did many of his peers: Hobbs notes that even for their privileged classmates, professional success seemingly necessitated brutal hours and deep debt. But Peace drifted back into the Newark drug trade; in 2011, he was murdered by some of the city's increasingly merciless gangsters due to his involvement in high-grade cannabis production. Hobbs manages the ambiguities of what could be a grim tale by meticulously constructing environmental verisimilitude and unpacking the rituals of hardscrabble parochial schools, Yale secret societies, urban political machinations and Newark drug gangs. An urgent report on the state of American aspirations and a haunting dispatch from forsaken streets.

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6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)
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