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

by Jeff Hobbs

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Overview

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).

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781476731919
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: 07/28/2015
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 44,067
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.10(d)
Lexile: 1220L (what's this?)

About 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. He is the author of The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace and The Tourists. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two children.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Jeff Hobbs. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.



Introduction

When Jeff Hobbs arrived at Yale University, he became fast friends with the man who would be his college roommate for four years, Robert Peace. Rob’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 barely scraping by as a cafeteria worker. But Rob was a brilliant student, and everything was supposed to get easier when he was accepted to Yale. But nothing got easier. Rob carried with him the difficult dual nature of his existence, “fronting” at Yale and at home.

As Jeff pieces together Rob’s life story through his relationships—with his struggling mother, his incarcerated father, his teachers and friends and fellow drug dealers—The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace comes to encompass the most enduring conflicts in America: race, class, drugs, community, imprisonment, education, family, friendship, and love. Rob’s story is 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 trying to live a decent life in America. But most all, the book is about the life and death of one brilliant man.



Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. The title of The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace reveals its ending. What was it like to read Peace’s life story, knowing how it would end? Was the tragedy present in your mind throughout the reading experience, or were you able to forget it at any point?

2. When Jackie first asked Skeet for tuition to send their son to private school, Skeet called her “uppity” (pp. 22–23). How does the term “uppity” capture the possibilities and pitfalls of Jackie’s aspirations for Rob?

3. Throughout his short life, Rob “strove to project confidence and strength while refusing to show weakness and insecurity” (p. 57). Why do you think Rob refused to ask for help during his many moments of need? What were the direct and indirect consequences of Rob’s projection of confidence?

4. Discuss Rob’s methods of “Newark-proofing”: code-switching to protect himself in the streets of his hometown. According to Rob, how is Newark-proofing compatible with authenticity? How does Newark-proofing compare to “fronting,” a type of role-play that Rob disdained? Do you agree with Rob’s distinction between Newark-proofing and fronting? Why or why not?

5. Consider Rob’s relationship to the drug trade, as both user and seller. How did marijuana affect his intellect, his emotions, and his relationships? Do you think a different legal policy toward marijuana might have affected his life course? Why or why not?

6. Discuss Rob’s attitudes toward money, poverty, and class. In what ways did Rob seek to escape or fix the deprived circumstances of his upbringing? In what ways did he replicate or revert to the cycle of poverty?

7. Consider the complicated journey of Skeet’s conviction, appeals, illness, and death. What were the injustices of Skeet’s experience? How do these injustices mirror larger issues of America’s justice system? How might the crime and its punishment be considered ambiguous or complicated?

8. Jeff Hobbs doesn’t enter the story until almost a third of the way through the book, when he and Rob Peace were matched as college roommates. What was it like to begin this book without “meeting” its narrator? How does the narrative change when Jeff steps onto the page?

9. Discuss the universal and particular elements of Rob’s college experience. What are some of the typical college milestones that Rob experienced at Yale? What was extraordinary or singular about his Yale years? In what ways does Rob’s experience point to larger questions about the value of a college degree today, particularly from an Ivy League school?

10. Consider Oswaldo Gutierrez, Rob’s friend who also traveled from Newark to New Haven and back again. Which of Oswaldo and Rob’s obstacles were similar, and which were different? How does Oswaldo’s current success shed light on Rob’s life choices?

11. Revisit Rob’s “statement of purpose” drafted for graduate school applications, printed in full near the end of the book (pp. 337–40). Why do you think Hobbs chose to print the statement in full—typos and all? What is the effect of reading this rough draft?

12. Jeff Hobbs orchestrates dozens of voices on the life and death of Robert Peace. Of all the perspectives in the book, whose felt most objective? Who, if anyone, might have offered a biased view of Peace’s history?

13. How did you feel when the Burger Boyz were disallowed from attending Rob’s funeral (pp. 392–93)? Could you sympathize with this decision? Do you think these young men deserve forgiveness for any connection with Rob’s death?

14. At Rob’s funeral, in front of four hundred mourners, Raquel compared her friend to a redwood tree, and took “solace in the fact that so many others thrived and found refuge in his shade while he was with us” (p. 390). Why do you think Rob had such a towering influence on so many people? How might that influence extend to the people who “meet” Rob by reading this book?



Enhance Your Book Club

1. Listen to a short interview with Jeff Hobbs on KCRW, the Los Angeles–based radio station: http://blogs.kcrw.com/whichwayla/2014/09/two-unlikely-friends-one-tragic-ending.

2. Watch the Academy Award–nominated PBS documentary Street Fight, about Cory Booker’s 2002 campaign for mayor. Learn more about the film and find websites that stream it here: http://www.streetfightfilm.com/index.html.

3. Mourners have left mix CDs on Rob Peace’s grave site. Using your favorite music-streaming service, compile a mix in tribute to Peace, including some of the songs mentioned in the book: “Southern Hospitality” by Ludacris, “Ride wit Me” by Nelly, “Put It on Me” by Ja Rule, “It Wasn’t Me” by Shaggy, “Forget You” by Cee Lo Green, and “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem” by DMX. Add songs by Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls, Nas, and even two of the “prog rock” bands Rob discovered through his friend Hrvoje: the Misfits and Black Flag.

4. Try your hand at Jeff Hobbs’s research methods: choose any friend or loved one as a research subject. Interview three of your subject’s friends or relatives, asking the same two or three questions about the subject’s personal history. Do you get similar versions of the same story, or completely different stories? Discuss your research results with your book club.



A Conversation with Jeff Hobbs

Why did you decide to write this book?

On a Wednesday night in May 2011, while in the midst of brushing my teeth, I learned that my best friend from college had died violently, pointlessly, and painfully. I did what anyone does upon losing someone dear: flew to the funeral, said a few words during the service, bowed my head during the burial, made toasts to Rob having been a “good dude,” mourned, tried to move on. Except that I couldn’t move on; I returned home and found myself spending full workdays staring at the knotty wall planking in the garage where I work, mostly remembering good times had with Rob. I wrote a bunch of personal essays, weaving together college memories with weak attempts at insight, as well as stabbing at the guilt of having allowed our friendship to grow distant over the decade since we’d graduated. I reached out to mutual friends, spent hours talking on the phone and in person, asking each other, of course, why? A community formed around this question, many people from the various spaces of his life connecting with one another. And at some point it became important to people that some record exist—of his life, not only his death.

In the end, there was not so much a specific decisive moment of, “I am going to write a book about Rob,” but rather a process of being caught in this wave of loss and curiosity—of needing to know more—which only gathered strength as weeks and months passed. To some degree, no matter the medium or intention, everyone writes about what conflicts them, and nothing has ever conflicted me more than the death of Rob Peace.

How did Rob’s friends and family react to your intention to write his biography?

To say that Jackie Peace had given all of herself in order to nurture Rob’s intelligence and curiosity in a neighborhood in which neither trait had much currency would be a vast understatement. When she lost him, she lost not only her only child but all those decades of sacrifice—she lost her identity and her hope. I didn’t know Jackie well at all when I first sat down in her living room to speak formally about the book. She told me that her lone consolation after his death was, “I think my son influenced a lot of people, I really do believe that.” Feeling very small in proximity to this woman and her grief, I replied that, if she was willing, I wanted to write a book—a book about Rob’s life, not his death. I told her that there was very little chance of it being published, but I was driven to work to piece his story together, and that if this effort were in fact successful, perhaps he might continue to influence a few people for the better—and might even spare another mother the anguish that she has endured and will endure for the rest of her life. The blessing she gave to this project was courageous and selfless.

As for his friends—and he had an awful lot of friends—reactions were varied. Most were extremely enthusiastic and giving. Some were still too captured by grief to process it. A small few were doubtful of my ability to tell Rob’s story, which was of course a valid doubt.

What were some of the difficulties you faced putting the book together?

Foremost among challenges was the process of exploring a neighborhood foreign to me, and in which my presence was not generally welcome. An inherent discomfort lies in a white guy—a Yale graduate no less—entering the homes of mostly black, mostly struggling people and asking for their stories as they related to a man we both cared for and missed. But that was perhaps the most affecting part of this experience: once we started talking about Rob and exchanging stories filled with humor and warmth, those walls between us tended to come down pretty quickly. Dialogue streamed out of the past and, at times, Rob seemed to spring back into being.

Also challenging was the emotional freight that reporting out this story carried, not only on me personally but on all participants. Positive intention charged all of our efforts, but it was depleting to inhabit such a tragedy day in and day out. I experienced guilt as the details of Rob’s life came out of the dark—guilt that even though I lived with him for four years in a small space and had hundreds of conversations with him, I had never become aware of his whole story. In truth, no one had, not even his mother.

What would you say is the impact of Yale on Rob’s life? If you were advising a teenager in his position, would you recommend Yale?

What Rob said somewhat often was, “I don’t hate Yale, I just hate Yalies.” The entitlement bothered him the most, the blithe energy that coursed through classrooms and parties that we deserved this rare experience more than those who weren’t here. There was this outrage kind of underneath his skin that made him resent his own presence there. That was unhealthy, and if I could go back in time and talk to that version of him, I’d say, “Dude, there are entitled assholes everywhere. They might be more concentrated at Yale for obvious reasons, but wherever you live, wherever you work, there will always be entitlement. The key to living successfully in any environment is to keep from being contaminated by it.” His anger, I think, was a kind of contamination.

I risk painting the picture of this brooding Hamlet figure. Rob was not that. He was a bright light. He became a true scientist there and he made fantastic friendships, lifelong friendships that he took with him. And yes, I think he would advise anyone with the opportunity to go to Yale to go to Yale—to go and take advantage of the plentiful resources available, be they academic or social or emotional resources. Let people in despite your biases against what they may represent. Ask people for help. Yes, it’s a lot to ask of an eighteen- or nineteen-year old experiencing such a drastic and all-encompassing change to have that level of maturity, but listen, college is the last time in your life where you have a stable of people—intelligent people—professors, advisers, upperclassmen—whose job it is to help you. If this book has any influence on college-aged kids, I hope it would be that there is no shame in receiving help, even the simplest kind of help, such as sitting with a friend and permitting them to listen, because never again will help be so close by.

What did you learn about Robert Peace that most surprised you? Troubled you?

You didn’t have to know Rob well to understand that he inhabited two vastly different, fiercely insular worlds: the streets he’d come from and the classrooms his abilities allowed him to enter. That was his broad narrative as reported in the newspaper following his death, that Rob Peace was “two people” (having lived in a small room with him for four years, I can assure you that he was absolutely one person). But what I began to learn even before writing this book was that he didn’t live in two worlds. He lived in ten, fifteen, more. He made communities for himself in Rio and Croatia. He spent much of his life, unbeknown to anyone, working to free his father from prison—writing letters, studying in legal libraries, filing appeals. He mentored hundreds of kids as a high school teacher and coach. He all but carried his friends through the travails of life—academically, emotionally, financially. He lived firmly in the center of all these many spheres, shouldered the dependence of so many people, strived to carry all these various pressures with order and grace—and steadfastly refused help in any form along the way. This dynamic was exacerbated by a pattern that emerged in which none of his friends at Yale felt comfortable or capable of offering advice because of the hard way he’d grown up in Newark, and none of his friends in Newark felt comfortable doing the same because this was the guy who’d graduated from Yale. He was heartbreakingly isolated, even in the midst of his closest friends.

So Rob’s life overall was nothing if not surprising and troubling—all that he achieved, all that he failed to achieve, the manner in which he was killed and all the hundreds of decisions, most of them innocuous in the happening, that brought him to that moment. But even in that context, I encountered so much positivity that I do hope courses through these pages—he faced so many challenges, many self-wrought, many induced by the relentless algorithms of poverty, and he never wilted, he never stopped caring about others and, as his mother told me, influencing others.

Why do you think what happened, happened?

My young daughter, clued in to what I’ve been working on for more than half her life, asked me once: “Why did your friend Rob Peace pass away?” I replied, “He had a lot of bad luck, and he made a lot of bad decisions.” This answer is tailored to a child, but I think it remains the most accurate answer. The fact is, we all experience bad luck, we all make bad decisions. I certainly have. Most of mine have been insignificant. But Rob’s bad decisions—because of the circumstances he was born into and those he wrought for himself—were life-ending.

What was the “meaning of Rob’s life”?

The meaning of Rob’s life is closely linked with the staggering contrasts that life encapsulated. Here is a man who made communities all over the world when he traveled, but couldn’t leave his old neighborhood. A man who aspired to be free of the harried, fiscally based existences that most of us lead, yet ended up bound to one of the most harried, fiscally based occupations there is. A man who performed X-ray crystallography in a cancer research lab but couldn’t own an EZ Pass for fear of being traced by police, and so spent much of his brief life in cash-only toll lines between Newark and Manhattan. A man whose ambition was to teach college chemistry and cook out with his friends and family on weekends, who bled to death in the basement beside a gas mask, a butane tank he used for THC extraction, and the Kevlar vest he wore whenever he went outside.

This is the story of a boy from Orange, New Jersey, who earned his way to Yale, flourished there, and then did what almost everyone in his life told him not to do: he came back. He came back and he taught high school, and he was present for his family, and he traveled, and he loved, and he hustled marijuana, and he stumbled through his twenties the way almost everyone stumbles through their twenties, dwelling on greater purpose and ultimately placing himself within the ever-lurking orbit of ruthless urban violence. That’s a messy story. Because it’s messy being a person, and having a consciousness, and having values, often conflicting values. But it’s also a story about love, and not just the standard associations of grace and depth, but the trickier components, the ones that are hard to confront let alone wrap your head around: the warped logic and impossible loyalties and invisible burdens that love can and does generate.

In a broader cultural sense, what would you hope readers take away from this story?

This is the story of one man’s life, a relatively anonymous man who died because he sold drugs—and that stark fact can be and has been sufficient for any given person to dismiss his story as one of potential wasted in the service of thuggery. And if that’s your reaction, you’re perfectly entitled to it. But this book is about details, it’s about empathy—about remembering that everyone does not experience each moment the same way. It’s about getting to know and understand a remarkable, flawed young man. Yes, his life touches on race and class in this country; yes, it illuminates education and entitlement and access; and yes, it speaks to the fact that living a decent life in America can be tremendously difficult. These issues are quite subjective, and they are best served to remain that way; my intent is not to make statements but simply to tell what happened.

I’ve mentioned the idea of seeking out help. Yale has a comprehensive infrastructure in place, geared primarily toward students whose upbringings haven’t necessarily prepared them for college life—academic, emotional, social. There are guidance counselors and writing tutors and cultural advisers, all free and readily available. But it turns out that the kids most likely to take advantage of these resources are those who need it the least: the Exeter graduates, the future Rhodes Scholars, the affluent students who from the day they were born were primed to believe that adults existed almost exclusively to help them. I’ve cited Rob’s aversion to seeking out help as an admission of not belonging. But what do you do about that gap? Who’s most culpable—the students falling behind or the administration unable to pull them forward?

These are questions that lie under the shadow of broader and more bombastic debates. I don’t know the answers, but I do feel like awareness—and empathy—is where anyone’s potential to do good, maybe even cause change, maybe even save a friend’s life, begins.

Interviews

A Conversation with Jeff Hobbs, Author of The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace

Why did you decide to write this book?

On a Wednesday night in May of 2011, while in the midst of brushing my teeth, I learned that my best friend from college had died violently, pointlessly. I did what anyone does upon losing someone dear: flew to the funeral, said a few words during the service, bowed my head during the burial, made toasts and drank to excess with old friends, mourned, tried to move on. Except that I couldn't move on; I returned home and found myself spending full workdays staring at the knotty wall planking in the garage where I work, mostly remembering good times had with Rob. I wrote a bunch of personal essays weaving together college memories with weak attempts at insight, as well as stabbing at the guilt of having allowed our friendship to grow distant over the decade since we'd graduated. I reached out to mutual friends, spent hours talking on the phone and in person, asking each other, of course, why? This was Robert Peace. Robert Peace was my roommate and best friend at Yale University during four vital years of life. Robert Peace had saved me from fistfights and towed me through heartbreak and made me laugh thousands of times. Robert Peace was a brilliant scientist, a loyal friend, a world traveler, a high school teacher and coach - and a Yale graduate to boot. He was the one who was always going to succeed and do so in spectacular fashion. He was definitively not the one who was going to be shot to death in a basement in the ghetto outside Newark, surrounded by marijuana. But that was how he left this world. In the end, there was not so much a specific decision moment of, "I am going to write a book about Rob," but rather a process of being caught in this wave of loss and curiosity - of needing to know more - which only gathered strength as weeks and months passed. To some degree, no matter the medium or intention, everyone writes about what conflicts them, and nothing has ever conflicted me more than the death of Rob Peace, and I believed that some catharsis could be wrought in telling his story - his true story - not just for myself but for all the many, many lives with which his intersected, most of which were the better for that intersection having occurred. Of course, I wouldn't presume to embark on such a sensitive undertaking without the support of his friends, family, and most importantly, his mother, Jackie Peace.

How did Rob's friends and family react to your intention to write his biography? Can you tell us a bit about the research process?

To say that Jackie Peace had given all of herself in order to nurture Rob's intelligence and curiosity in a neighborhood in which neither trait had much currency would be a vast understatement. When she lost him, she lost not only her only child, but all those decades of sacrifice - she lost her identity and her hope, and I can't imagine anyone who has invested more hope in another human being as she did in her son. I didn't know Jackie well at all when I first sat down in her living room to speak formally about the book. She told me that her lone consolation after his death was, "I think my son influenced a lot of people, I really do believe that." Feeling very small in proximity to this woman and her grief, I replied that, if she was willing, I wanted to write a book - a book about Rob's life, not his death. I told her that there was very little chance of it being published, but I was driven to work for the six months or so necessary to piece his story together, and that if this effort were in fact successful, perhaps he might continue to influence people in some way.

The research ended up taking more than a year, and the breadth of it speaks to the breadth of the life Rob led. I would one moment be speaking to the COO of a major bank, the next to a tarmac worker at Newark International Airport, the next to a Croatian fashion model from Pula, the next to a Yale professor, the next to a prison inmate in Trenton, the next to the mayor of Newark, the next to a drug dealer in the hood, and so on. These conversations were not always comfortable; they rarely were, being as most of them took place in neighborhoods in which I was not necessarily welcome and not always safe. I had a gun drawn on me once in a North Philadelphia drug den. A GPS mishap had me walking obliviously with my notebook, wearing a blue button down, through the heart of Newark's gangland on 18th Avenue. But all these barriers that existed - which were representative of all the barriers Rob had broken down in order to matriculate at Yale - tended to fall pretty fast, due to the clear commonality of caring about Rob and wanting to contribute to something positive in the wake of his ultimate fate.

Describe the neighborhood Rob grew up in, and the "barriers he broke down."

Rob grew up in a neighborhood outside Newark, colloquially named Illtown. When he was born, in 1980, the previous two decades worth of white flight, the decline of the manufacturing sector and rise of federal project housing, the rapid flourishing of the drug trade and its violence - not to mention the riots of 1967 - had all but cemented the neighborhood as a place of permanent poverty. Crack and its violence were in full bloom outside his front door; hustlers governed the night and much of the day. I could give you many details about how specifically Rob grew up in this milieu, but I'll limit it to one: when he went to Burger King with his high school friends - they called themselves the Burger Boyz - he would grab two dozen ketchup packets from the bin and suck on them all afternoon, because he couldn't afford a burger. Suffice to say, he didn't have much. His father went to prison for life when he was seven years old, an incredible burden that he would carry quietly throughout his life. He was thus forced to become fundamentally an adult at an unfairly young age. But he had a home, owned by his family for over thirty years. He had the natural gift of a cavernous intellect, paired with the curiosity and drive to fill it to capacity with knowledge, even though knowledge could be very dangerous in his environment (for instance, if a group of street hustlers got to thinking that Rob thought he was better than them, that was a problem, one he worked tirelessly to avoid). He had a mother who loved him to world's end and had aspirations for which she was willing to sacrifice. He had loyal friends who challenged him and watched his back. He had impassioned teachers who recognized his potential and made the hard choices necessary to foster it. When he was admitted to Yale, that accomplishment was shared by so many - Rob Peace had made it out. What no one fully understood was that Rob didn't aspire to "make it out." He was deeply attached to the streets on which he'd become a man, and to the people who'd helped him do so. Yale University, and all the associations those words call to mind, was not enough to bring him to think any differently - to, in his view, forsake his roots.

How did his experience at Yale contrast to the coming of age you've just described?

He had an awful lot of experiences at Yale - most of them positive, a few of them negative - that I'm not sure the degree to which they can be reduced to an overall "experience." Paired randomly as roommates freshman year, Rob and I bonded first over the irony that I was a white guy from the country who ran sprints for the track team and he was a black guy from the hood who played water polo (initiation for which found him wearing a toga in the dining hall singing Madonna's "Express Yourself.") He majored in Molecular Biochemistry & Biophysics, which is about as easy as it sounds. He walked around hunched over, wearing a piece of nylon fabric over his cornrows called a "skully," and at a glance he did not look like a member of the student body; he looked like he worked in the dining hall or custodial, and he seemed to take some kind of pride in that, fostering his "otherness." There were subtle and not-so-subtle racial dynamics in play - inevitable in such a privileged and rarefied arena - but he never seemed bothered by this, except for one time, when he was working in the dining hall and a group of prep school kids left their trays on the table for him to clean up - again, not aware that he was a classmate - and he was so incensed that he put his fist through the wall. He smoked and sold weed - a lot of weed - but since he never seemed to spend any money, it was easy to assume that he was saving up for graduate school, or helping out his mother, or both - that if it was not exactly honorable, it was something he knew how to do, money that he needed, and because this was marijuana and we lived in a college dorm, it was safe. I remember going to one of his water polo games and being sort of hypnotized by the way he thrashed through the water, with power but not much grace, his teeth bared in a perpetual leering grin as he talked smack and threw elbows. His joy, which drifted upward into the stands, was total - and that was the Rob Peace whom I remember from college. And at the end of it all, when we watched him receive his Yale diploma onstage with that smile of his, a smile as big as all the outdoors, he seemed not only chosen but destined to fulfill all of his dreams, all the dreams others had placed on him.

What did you learn about Robert Peace that most surprised you? Troubled you?

You didn't have to know Rob well to understand that he inhabited two vastly different, fiercely insular worlds: the streets he'd come from and the classrooms his abilities allowed him to enter. That was his broad narrative, and again, he took pride in entering the latter without leaving the former behind, a pride that I don't believe was nourishing. But what I began to learn even before writing this book was that he didn't live in two worlds. He lived in ten, fifteen, more. He made communities for himself in Rio and Croatia. He spent much of his life, unbeknownst to anyone, working to free his father from prison - writing letters, studying in legal libraries, filing appeals. He mentored hundreds of kids as a high school teacher and coach. He all but carried his friends through the travails of life - academically, emotionally, financially. He lived firmly in the center of all these many spheres, shouldered the dependence of so many people, strived to carry all these various pressures with order and grace - and steadfastly refused help in any form along the way. And this broad word, "help," has a lot to do with the titular tragedy. He was surrounded by people who cared passionately about his well being, who would have done anything for him, and yet he saw seeking help, even the simplest kind of help such as permitting a friend to listen, as an expression of weakness, even a source of shame. That view was compounded with a pattern that emerged in which none of his friends at Yale felt comfortable or capable of offering advice because of the hard way he'd grown up in Newark, and none of his friends in Newark felt comfortable doing the same because this was the guy who'd graduated from Yale. He was heartbreakingly isolated, even in the midst of his closest friends. So Rob's life overall was nothing if not surprising and troubling - all that he achieved, all that he failed to achieve, the manner by which he was killed and all the hundreds of decisions, most of them innocuous in the happening, that brought him to that moment. But even in that context, I encountered so much positivity that I do hope courses through these pages - he faced so many challenges, many self-wrought, many induced by the relentless algorithms of poverty, and he never wilted, he never stopped caring about others and, as his mother told me, influencing others. That caring played a large part in some of the poor decisions he made, both drug-related and not. Though no one was in the basement when he was shot except the man in a ski mask who pulled the trigger (who remains uncaught over three years later), it is strongly believed that he was taking action to protect two of his best friends, one of whom had a wife and son, all of them upstairs in the house that awful night.

In a broader, cultural sense, what would you hope readers take away from this story?

This is the story of one man's life, a relatively anonymous man who died because he sold drugs - and that stark fact can be and has been sufficient for any given person to dismiss his story as one of potential wasted in the service of thuggery. And if that's your reaction, you're perfectly entitled to it. But this book is about details, it's about empathy, it's about getting to know and understand a remarkable, flawed young man. Yes, his life touches on race and class in this country, yes it illuminates certain shortcomings of the educational system, yes it speaks to the fact that living a decent life in America can be tremendously difficult. These issues are quite subjective, and they are best served to remain that way; my intent is not to make statements but simply to tell what happened. For instance, Yale has a comprehensive infrastructure in place, geared primarily toward students whose upbringings haven't necessarily prepared them for college life - academic, emotional, social. There are guidance counselors and writing tutors and cultural advisors, all free and readily available. But it turns out that the kids most likely to take advantage of these resources are those who need it the least: the Exeter graduates, the future Rhodes Scholars, the affluent students who from the day they were born were primed to believe that adults existed almost exclusively to help them. I've mentioned the idea of seeking out help, and Rob's aversion to it as an admission of not belonging. But what do you do about that gap? Who's most culpable - the students falling behind or the administration unable to pull them forward? These are questions that haven't necessarily been asked before, as they lie under the shadow of broader and more bombastic debates. I don't know the answers, but I do feel like awareness is the first step. There are many dozen discoveries like this in the book -these seemingly small manifestations of wider socio-economic issues that are all but invisible. They shouldn't be invisible. People - and particularly young people - should be talking about them. And I have a feeling they will once they've seen them throughthe eyes of Rob Peace.

What have you discovered lately?

Through researching Rob's story, my biggest discovery has been nonfiction itself, some but not all of it related to this book. Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow is an incendiary journey through the United States penal system - wow, that gal is as smart as she is fearless, and she's able to make a grim study of prison policy exciting. I read Marina Keegan's The Opposite of Loneliness - which is interesting in that it is half fiction, have nonfiction. I approached this one with a bit of trepidation due to its unique and heartbreaking posthumous route to publication, and was blown away by the attention to detail, the deep earnestness that I have much nostalgia for from being twenty-two years old and striving, her ability to just write what she sees, with kindness and without self-consciousness. Her ability to redeem people with just a sentence or phrase is enviable. Susan Cain's Quiet is this joyful celebration of being an introvert in a culture governed by the "Extrovert Ideal," something I've always struggled with personally. She wrote it beautifully and the scope of her research is stunning - I think a must-read for introverts and extroverts alike. I like a good thriller - I recently burned through Hank Steinberg's Out of Range in just two days, it's a fun one, and written with care, sans the overwrought language and lazy similes that sometimes characterize the genre. It's been a while since I've really dug into a big literary fiction book, which is all I ever used to read (with all the pretentiousness that statement implies), but I'm halfway through Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See and it's such an experience, has rekindled that old, almost forgotten joy of sitting up in bed in the early a.m. with the reading light on and my wife and children and dog sound asleep, and simply inhabiting a story and siphoning its energy. A book takes you away like no other form of art, because it doesn't just happen to you like a movie or a song or a painting. You actively enter into it and participate in it, and, if it's great, give yourself up to it. Doerr's book has me. Read that one, just read it.

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