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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

4.5 35
by Jeff Hobbs

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An instant New York Times bestseller, named a best book of the year by The New York Times Book Review, Amazon, and Entertainment Weekly, among others, this celebrated account of a young African-American man who escaped Newark, NJ, to attend Yale, but still faced the dangers of the streets when he returned is, “nuanced and shattering” (


An instant New York Times bestseller, named a best book of the year by The New York Times Book Review, Amazon, and Entertainment Weekly, among others, this celebrated account of a young African-American man who escaped Newark, NJ, to attend Yale, but still faced the dangers of the streets when he returned is, “nuanced and shattering” (People) and “mesmeric” (The New York Times Book Review).

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, trying to fit in at Yale, and at home on breaks.

A compelling and honest portrait of Robert’s relationships—with his struggling mother, with his incarcerated father, with his teachers and friends—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 the slums of Newark, New Jersey, and the difficulty of going from one to the other and then back again. It’s about trying to live a decent life in America. But most all this “fresh, compelling” (The Washington Post) story is about the tragic life of one singular brilliant young man. His end, a violent one, is heartbreaking and powerful and “a haunting American tragedy for our times” (Entertainment Weekly).

Editorial Reviews

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.
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.
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.)
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."
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."
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."
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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Meet the Author

Jeff Hobbs graduated with a BA in English language and literature from Yale in 2002, where he was awarded the Willets and Meeker prizes for his writing. Hobbs spent three years in New York and Tanzania while working with the African Rainforest Conservancy. He now lives in Los Angeles with his wife.

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The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 35 reviews.
Palegirl More than 1 year ago
The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace won’t get out of my head.  I’ve been thinking about it long after I finished reading it.  I’m sure you will, too. A lot of people are probably going to say he wasted his life.  I’m not going to.  (Mostly because I bet a lot of people have said the same about me.)  Sometimes people just don’t know which way to go in life. Jeff Hobbs not only knew Robert Peace, when he decided to write about him, he researched his life in-depth.  Mr. Peace grew up in a violent and poverty-stricken city, raised by a hard-working, loving single mom.  He loved his mom dearly and wanted to take care of her and honor the sacrifices she made for him. He loved to read and learn and excelled in school.  It paid off when he got a full-ride to Yale.  But then what? This is an interesting and telling book on what it means to be a young person in this country and faced with not only difficult choices, but uncertain socio-economic futures .  Mr. Hobbs never judges.  This tale is told journalistically and with heart.  
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed reading this book and think it was very well written I found myself getting sad toward the end knowing that he was going to get killed but almost hoping he wouldn't Kudos to the author on his first nonfiction I enjoyed the way he put himself into the story & sometimes told the story from his own point of view Recommend this as it is nonfiction but reads like a novel
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A brilliant mind and loving mother who struggled to get him the best education she could were not enough to save him from himself. An Ivy League education doesnt insulate you from stupid decisions. A very good cautionary tale, should be read by all HS students.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace is an amazing story. It is filled with the uplifting story of Robert’s rise out of the slums to attain an Ivy League education. Yet this is not a feel good story as Robert ends up falling victim to the streets he tried to leave behind. Good stuff!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Jeff Hobbs has done a wonderful job of re-creating his relationship with his college roommate at Yale. A horrific story that has lessons to be learned about the effects of one's background on the remainder of their life.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book captured me. The author told the story well and although he was Rob's friend, he presents an unbiased tale. At the end of the day, it is a telling tale of what generations of poverty and hopelessness combined the years of drug use can do to a bright and talented person's trajectory. I couldn't help but wonder how much of this tragedy would have been avoided if Rob had never gotten into the drug scene.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I just finished reading this book and I cannot stop thinking about it. It is well written as Jeff Hobbs describes the multifaceted world that Robert Peace lived in and the person he becomes. Even though I knew what was going to happen in the end, it still left me shaken. Although Robert was the central figure in the book, there are many other characters who I wanted to succeed and cheered for while reading it. While some do succeed, others cannot escape their environment and fail. I cannot help but think about the hundreds of thousands of others living in that same situation. I believe this book will continue to receive the buzz and accolades it deserves in the upcoming future.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This young man loved and worshiped his Father only to lose him to injustice. He tried to restore him by following his example which cost him his life. This is a story of ?ove and devotion in so many ways.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It took me out of my comfort zone, thank you for sharing such a tragic life.
MahMah More than 1 year ago
Sad to say, Author Hobbs had me 'judging' all over the place as I read his devastating but beautifully written chronicle covering the short but amazing life of his onetime Yale roommate and friend, Robert Peace. By the time I finished the book I was so filled with JUDGMENTS, outrage, pity, and sorrow that I was almost sorry I had ventured to read it! But then I remembered a quote I'd once read by Viktor Frankel, author, neurologist and psychiatrist, Holocaust survivor (1905-1997): "No man should judge unless he asks himself in absolute honesty whether in a similar situation he might not have done the same." So I 'asked' and for this reason I give this book FIVE stars.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
i read this book almost none stop till about the last third at which point i just wanted to jump ahead and see where it was that his life started spiraling downward i recommend the book for its reality check.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really don't see Rob as being a thug. Thugs have no regard for human life. Rob apparently had a heart big heart, but made some bad decisions. Moral of the story, always put yourself first. Rob was always trying to take care of others & then back peddling to come up with a quick fix; one that cost him his life. Good job Jeff!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Phenomenal yet sad story of a young man who had so much potential and opportunity but who would not conform to societal norms in order to be successful. It is a must read for all young and old men of color, single mothers raising sons, and anyone else with inner conflict between everyday life pressure, peer pressure, and the pressure to succeed in a tough, judgmental world. It is also a must read for those who live in glass houses and have no concept of the struggles of the poor. I am so moved by this story of class divisiveness and yet angry by Rob's inability to see the forest for the trees and grab hold of an opportunity to make inroads into this divide and show that one's upbringing/class does not mean instant failure when given an opportunity to succeed. In my mind, Rob died as a hero and inspiration to others, especially young men, in many ways despite his chosen means of making money.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Could not put it down well written
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Hobbs did a great job of thoroughly weaving through the colorful and textured life of Robert Peace. This is more than a story about promise wasted ,it is the story of existential circumstances and insurmountable choices. I commend Hobbs on his ability to provide the reader with all sides of Rob from a unfiltered , unbiased perspective. Excellent read for anyone and everyone !
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
As a book, this is an excellent read, painstakingly researched and heartbreaking story of the life of a young man with such enormous potential that met an unfortunate, violent, and all too soon ending. As a story, the life of Robert Peace is an incredibly inspiring tale of grit, determination, brilliance, and unshakable tenacity. It is heartbreaking to imagine the incredible heights Robert could have achieved and the contributions he could have made to science or any field had he made it. I believe that while his talents were wasted, I am sure that he lived and very full life and made the best of his years. I so much admire his mother Jackie, as well as Robert for their ability to overcome and for their perserverance. This story is incredible touching and sad, and I am certain I am not alone in saying that I wish the ending had been very, very diffrrent, not just for Robert but also for so many other promising youths whose lives are ended all too soon and while they had so very much more to do and offer in life. Rest in Peace, Shaun.
senated More than 1 year ago
He beat the odds then the odds beat him. A real tragic story about a kid who, despite his disadvantaged  background, earns his college degree from Yale. He has the education and talent to go any direction, but decides Instead to become a heavy drug user and dealer. It was only a matter of time before you knew what would Kill him in the end
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I love this book! One of the best books I've read, Jeff Hobbs did a great job taking you on the journey of Rob Peace life. I still can't believe he's dead. Jeff Hobbs you are an amazing person for allowing Robert Peace to touch the lives of people that are still alive to read his story and to inspire people around them to be great even when your enviroment make it impossible!!!
IrishIL More than 1 year ago
This was a some what difficult book for me to get through. Mr. Hobbs' story of his friend Rob Peace just seems to drag on and on. I think if he could have eliminated some of his own thoughts and to get on with the story, I would have liked it better; however I was anxious to find out why and how he was killed. It was a good read and very interesting life of one man who came from a poor family but still managed to put himself through school including college; making great grades and continuing to make something of himself after college. He took care of his mother and tried his best to help his father. It took me sometime to get through this book, but in the end it was worth it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A truly heartfelt book. I will be sharing this with my students. So easy to judge from the outside until you understand the heart and soul of an amazing person.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
OK, I am over 60 yrs old and have never cried at the end of a book...and I have read a lot of tragic stories (true crime, memoirs)..This story really touched me on many levels..beautifully written by Hobbs (who better -someone who knew him but had objective distant ). I think we all can identify with several people in the story..his mom, his friends.. What a helpless feeling when you try to give someone advice but don't want to push..and then they don't listen. At one level, it describes the process of what a man goes through to "find his way" in life....the pressures that women do not have (we have our own). Just so sad...makes you wonder what his life would have become if he had lived longer. Someone should make a movie from this book....maybe required reading in high school...highly recommend.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The author drew me into Robert's life immediately and by the end of the book I felt I had lost my own friend. I wish I could have know Robert and helped him see what a positive role he could play in the world rather than the negative and dark path he chose in the end. Read this book. It will change you for the better.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I had to read this book for a class, but I wasn't even 50 pages in when I realized I wasn't only reading the book for school, but because the author had captured my attention. I wanted to know about Rob, his family, friends, and ultimately where everything went wrong. Tragic is exactly the word I would use to describe Roberts life. Born with the expectation by society that he would grow up to be nobody who would either end up in prison or prematurely in a grave. By sheer force of will and determination shared with his mother Robert beat the odds and got an education only some can dream of. Sadly that wasn't enough. Even with all that promise and education Robert couldn't find it in himself to turn his back on the lifestyle that he was raised in and the people that he truly related to. In the case of Nature vs. Nurture, nature won and Robert lost. This is an excellent book and I would recommend it to anyone. Not so you can judge this man or the people in his life for their choice, but because I think everyone could use a little self reflection that this book gives.
mdgirlLB More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book. Very good writing. Really helped you get to know Rob Peace and his life. So sad he chose the life he did after college. The only draw back I had was there were times when the story line was long and too drawn out. I had to skip over pages that I felt did not matter to the story. All in all, a very good book.
Mohamed-Gueye1069 More than 1 year ago
Iwas very saddened by this book. It fells hard to hear that a young wise man was so close to achieving his goal at the IVY school, Yale University. When he was born, it was the greatest day of his parents lives. As he grew up in Newark, New Jersey, there has been a lot of ups and downs with the crimes that are involved. Robert Peace was that much of a talker until he was 3. When he went through his education, he was fast making new friends having excellent education making Rob Peace a unique and wise man. After finishing high school, being accepted to Yale University was a dream come true. That ballistic trauma (gunshot wound) was tragic and unforgettable. This was right for the author, Jeff Hobbs, to write this heartbreaking biography.