The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace
by Jeff Hobbs
Here’s a book that tells an interesting and sad story about a very smart guy who grew up in East Orange, New Jersey, earned all A’s, won awards and wound up at Yale on a free ride. It was a dream come true, but he found himself stuck between being “the man” in his old neighborhood and finding his place as a minority in the Ivy League and he just couldn’t make it work. He graduated from Yale with a degree in molecular biochemistry, all the while running a lucrative business selling marijuana. For reasons no one can explain, time after time, despite a stint as a teacher and a low-paying job at Newark Airport, he stubbornly chose selling drugs over finding a legitimate job. And it’s this choice that led to his ultimate death.
Rob Peace died at age thirty, shot over a drug-related dispute. This book is written by one of his college roommates and is an attempt to understand a man who spent his life trying to take care of others, but could not take care of himself.
While I found Robert Peace’s story engrossing, I was frustrated with the author’s story-telling, which at points became a memoir of his own less interesting life. Details about his experiences in college and his novel-writing efforts after college did not fit in. Hobbs also includes his own reflections on 9-11 and a weird comment about how he and his friends wondered why a few years later the World Trade Center site was still empty. Other stories about mingling with Peace and other minorities at Yale seem both naïve and insincere.
There is also an imbalance that I can’t quite put my finger on. I don’t know whether it’s a matter of not knowing the whole story, or just that there was a long line of people who let Rob’s behavior slide because he was so smart and cared so much about the people around him. For example, Rob’s mother, Jackie is no doubt hard-working and a good person, but I wonder how well the author knew her. Hobbs reveals very little else about Jackie except her work history and a few minor stories. It’s hard not to wonder why Jackie stayed involved with (though she chose not to marry him) Rob’s father, even though he was a drug dealer. Just because Skeet was smart and sociable and knew everyone in the neighborhood and helped young Rob with his homework doesn’t erase the fact that he sold drugs, ran with a dangerous crowd and was ultimately convicted of murdering two women. It’s annoying to read that Skeet had to have been a good guy because he coached a youth basketball team. And there’s the assumption throughout the book that Skeet was somehow wrongly accused and that the loaded murder weapon was planted on him.
And throughout, Jackie asked no questions when Rob put money on the counter for her. She didn’t want to know how he got his money even when this cash came from drug deals.
Rob’s teachers, despite one attempted intervention at St. Benedict’s by Friar Leahy, also looked the other way. The entire high school water polo team partied hard in hotel rooms before and after tournaments and Hobbs describes this as a bunch of lively guys unwinding after a long day. Likewise, when Rob was nabbed at Yale for dealing, I wonder why the university gave him a second chance.
It’s also hard to believe that Rob was doing all the things that Jeff Hobbs says he was. Earning straight A’s, conducting study groups, playing water polo, getting up at 4:30 am to work as a lifeguard, interning at a real estate firm, sitting with his grandparents, paying other people’s rents, taking trips to Trenton State Prison to visit his father, researching his father’s legal case, preparing a business plan for a house-flipping investment, etc. And when the day was done, drinking and getting high and making deliveries to his customers deep into the night.
Some smaller things also bothered me. Rob Peace grew up in East Orange, New Jersey, not Newark. The town and the city are close by, but distinct. But Hobbs interchanges these towns and when he refers to Newark, I feel as if he’s trying to make Peace’s neighborhood sound worse than it was.
Despite the compelling story, I found his writing style a little pompous, using words like “tchotchkes” and describing food processing for hospital patients as making “stews ingestible by straw.” He describes Rob at Yale as holding court with his pot customers and “presiding with his trademark grin and barbed bons mots.” I know these guys were a bunch of Yalies, but Hobbs sounds like he’s trying to work a big vocabulary into the book. There’s also the matter of overusing the word “impel” and a misuse of the word “infer” when he describes friends visiting Jackie and reminiscing about Rob. Tell me what you think about this sentence: “When he did come up and someone inferred directly or indirectly what a good boy he had been…” Yes, that’s picky, but I’m a little picky.
But I think the author raises some thoughtful points about how acts of generosity can tragically backfire. For a man who unselfishly gave away his own money, it’s a sad irony that he couldn’t manage the gift of an Ivy League education, which everyone presumed would launch him out of a bad neighborhood and lead him to success. What I guess it must be is the author’s over-sympathetic hero-worship of a man he didn’t fully know and that’s what gives the story an inaccurate slant.
So I give it three stars because the subject matter is very interesting. It’s a bit of a leap to re-create conversations from long ago, before the author even knew Peace, relying on his own imagination and interviews of people who knew his friend. Of course that makes the story more readable. But despite the lengthy research and interviews, there are gaps in the story, making me wonder just how well Jeff Hobbs knew Rob Peace. Or maybe Rob was just impossible to fully understand.
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