The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, by Jeff Hobbs

This review of Jeff Hobbs’ nonfiction work, “The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace,” was published September 2014 in The Seattle Times.

The Seattle Times

PeaceNo need for a spoiler alert reviewing Jeff Hobbs’ new work of narrative nonfiction. “The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: a Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League” gives it all up in the title.

Yet after 406 pages devoted to tracing the trajectory of an academic prodigy, from the day of his birth in the ghetto through his high-polish education and death in a drug-den shooting, you still come away thirsting for insight.

By all accounts, Robert Peace was an unusual young man, and not solely because of his prodigious brain. He graduated from Yale University with a degree in molecular biophysics and biochemistry, all expenses covered by a credit card magnate dazzled at the youth’s promise. Peace managed this feat while simultaneously dealing $100,000 worth of marijuana from his dorm room and remaining high throughout college, if Hobbs’ account is accurate.

Born into privilege, the author was Peace’s roommate at Yale. Now a novelist, his best writing showcases the high wire act that Peace attempted, balancing his two worlds: “In high school, he had been all things: an athlete, a leader, an academic, a partyer. In college, he went about his days so very quietly, slipping in and out of the room with a head nod and a ‘ ’Sup,’ his canvas book bag slung over his shoulder … ”

The backpack had been purchased by Peace’s father, serving a life sentence for double murder by the time his son entered college.

Hobbs is disarmingly frank about the awkwardness of their youthful friendship, and how deftly Peace kept him at arm’s length. But perhaps for this reason, readers never quite get inside the man.

That is a shame, because “The Short and Tragic Life” 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.

The circumstances of Peace’s birth are almost a cliché. His mother, Jackie, a single mom, worked cafeteria jobs to cover her son’s parochial-school education, a detail painfully replicated as Rob clears dishes for his wealthier classmates in the dining halls at Yale. After Jackie views her son’s body in a New Jersey morgue, she drives straight to work, never missing a shift.

The sharpest — and potentially most controversial — observations about Peace’s attempt to surmount his past come from a friend at Yale who observes Peace’s self-isolation and anger: “Here he was, drinking brandy in a prestigious society in a top-ranked school, the beneficiary of so many gifts both natural and bestowed, surrounded by bright and open-minded classmates, and yet still he remained mired in, even paralyzed by, what was effectively his own racism.”

Hobbs is the author of “The Tourists,” a 2007, young-adults-in-New-York novel that had some literati straining to compare him to a reincarnated F. Scott Fitzgerald. That’s a setup for disappointment if ever there was one, and some passages in “The Short and Tragic Life” will induce cringing.

But certain books you read for artistry, others for information. The latter category is where Hobbs’ account of Robert Peace’s life may prove most valuable. Its unusually blunt account of worlds colliding will leave nagging questions for many readers which might be all to the good.