Book review: Jeff Hobbs’ ‘The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League. Jeff Hobbs. Scribner. 406 pages. $27.
The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League. Jeff Hobbs. Scribner. 406 pages. $27.

There’s one word in the title of Jeff Hobbs’ new biography of his friend Robert Peace that doesn’t quite belong there: “tragic.”

The book tells the story of Peace, the son of a cash-strapped single mother. Hobbs met Peace when both were students at Yale. Nine years after they graduated together, Peace was shot and killed in Newark.

To reduce Peace’s 30-year existence to a single adjective does a disservice to Peace. It’s also unfair to Hobbs’ book. Robert Peace was, in his friend’s telling, a force of nature. His death may have been tragic, but in life he was intelligent, resourceful, creative and successful.

Despite the baggage of a childhood in an especially grim corner of Newark and of a father in prison, Peace triumphed at Yale. He did so in molecular biophysics and biochemistry. He was an educated and cultured man who kept himself and his family afloat by dealing drugs.

“He simply went to class, did his work, got A’s,” Hobbs writes of Peace’s time at Yale. “That he did so while smoking [and dealing] copious amounts of marijuana only made him more of a marvel; he wasn’t just smart, he was cool.”

Hobbs wrote the novel The Tourists, and he gives his account of Peace’s life a suitably novelistic beginning. He starts with Robert’s birth to the free-willed Jackie Peace in Newark in 1980.

Hobbs worked hard at researching the details of Rob’s early life, and he conveys Rob’s childhood with great compassion. Rob’s mother and father lived in the community with “the second highest concentration of African Americans living below the poverty line in America,” Hobbs says. But Jackie provided love and read frequently to the boy. By the time Rob reached daycare, his teachers had already started to call him “The Professor.”

Rob’s father is at once charismatic (he’s a popular neighborhood drug dealer) and largely absent. He plays an intermittent but important role in his son’s early life, but is then arrested and charged with a drug-related double homicide.

Unfortunately, while Hobbs might be thinking like a novelist in these critical first two sections of his book, he doesn’t always write like one. His account of Rob’s childhood is stilted and stiff, often peppered with odd abstractions that drain the life from his narrative.

But The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace comes alive from its third section onward, after Hobbs meets Peace at Yale. The men, black and white, have been thrown together into the competitive, status-conscious and often soul-crushing social environment of an Ivy League school. Both can see through the pretense around them.

Hobbs and Peace went their separate ways after they graduated. The last nine years of Peace’s life must have been difficult to piece together, but Hobbs did an outstanding job of research. Peace eschews a career after graduating and travels the world, teaching himself Portuguese to live in Rio. Hobbs also reconstructs, with intimate detail, the drug deals and betrayals that eventually led to his old friend’s demise.

In the end, the book is as much about class as it is about 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.

Hector Tobar reviewed this book for The Los Angeles Times.