A lot of books declare themselves to be “the [insert adjective] life of [insert name].” “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” “The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” (which I reviewed a few weeks ago). Now, there is one more: “The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace,” by Jeff Hobbs ’02.
These titles are simultaneously great and awful. They are so neat, so concise. They enthrall us, suggesting that we will quickly learn the totality of a life. They also imply that the story will touch on death. Yet for these same reasons, such titles are overly simplistic, even reductive. They boil a life down to a bumper sticker. They rob the books’ subjects of their glorious human inconsistencies.
Such a characterization fits “Robert Peace” very well. It is, in some ways, a profound and meaningful book, an easy read, a memorable story. It is also, in subtler ways, a problematic book. But we’ll get to that later.
“The Short and Tragic Life” tells the story of Robert DeShaun Peace ’02. Rob, as he was known (he also went by Shawn), was born in Newark to Jackie, a nurse, and Skeet, a hustler and drug-dealer. Jackie is hard working; Skeet is brilliant. Jackie buys her son encyclopedias and takes classes at night so she can send him to private school; Skeet teaches his son to fight and is convicted of a brutal double-murder before Rob turns ten.
So, the single child of a single mother, Rob grows up in East Orange, a neighborhood near Newark that Hobbs depicts as a crime-riddled, drug-ridden, gang-infested ghetto. As author Anand Girharadas described East Orange in a New York Times book review, “There are places in America where life is so cheap and fate so brutal that, if they belonged to another country, America might bomb that country to ‘liberate’ them.”
Even coming from such a household in such a community, Rob shone bright. He was at least as brilliant as his father. He thrived in a difficult prep school and scored in the 99th percentile on his SATs, even as he held down a part-time job, became a varsity water polo player, tutored his friends, supported his mother, worked (unsuccessfully) to free his father, and casually dealt drugs. Rob got into Yale and Johns Hopkins, but was set on attending Montclair State University until he obtained the unlikely financial support of a wealthy backer, an alumnus of his prep school. Jackie, overworked as always, missed the deadline to mail Rob’s security deposit for Johns Hopkins by a single day. Reluctantly, then, Rob set his sights on Yale.
As a Pierson freshman living in L-Dub (“Lanman-Wright Hall,” Hobbs always calls it in the book), Peace met Hobbs, a wealthy white kid from the ’burbs. At this point in the story, Hobbs becomes a character. Because of the author’s firsthand knowledge of Rob’s time at college, the Yale years are the most complete in the book. Rob continues to shine academically, majoring in molecular biophysics and biochemistry, achieving excellent grades, and working in a cancer research lab.
Yet Rob also realizes that he could make easy money by dealing weed to hapless, wealthy Yalies. Soon, he is bringing pounds of the stuff from Newark to Yale every year. Eventually, he is caught by the Pierson authorities, yet he gets off with a warning. Rob graduates with honors, with hundreds of thousands of dollars in drug money, and with no concrete plan for the future.
After Yale, Rob fulfills a long-held dream of spending several months in Brazil, walking the beautiful beaches and meeting the beautiful people, practicing his Portuguese far from the streets of East Orange. When he returns, however, Rob remains directionless. An untrustworthy family friend has stolen Rob’s drug money. Rob takes a job teaching science at his old prep school, and every year he talks about applying to do graduate work in biology. Yet Rob returns to drug dealing, as well. He starts carrying a gun, sleeping in his car or in friends’ homes, wearing a Kevlar vest. Eventually he trusts the wrong person. The book’s title implies what happens next, on a cold basement floor one night in 2011.
Hobbs is a sometimes-gifted writer, telling Rob’s story with verve and a wealth of descriptive detail. His book is a powerful one. For the most part, he describes a community about which he knows nothing with sensitivity and tact. Yet Hobbs also, inevitably, misses a lot. Many readers will notice, for instance, that there are virtually no female characters in this book beyond Rob’s mother and a variety of interchangeable girlfriends and hook-up partners.
More troublingly, we must remember Hobbs’s self-interest in telling this story. He is, in a sense, capitalizing on his friend’s death. Though Hobbs’s first novel, “The Tourists,” was a bestseller, he reveals in “The Short and Tragic Life” that it did not make him fabulously wealthy, that his second novel failed to find a publisher, that his third novel stalled, and that he was forced to take a job copy-editing self-published books to keep his young family financially afloat. Then “The Short and Tragic Life” shot to the top of the best-seller lists; Hobbs is a star.
Still, even as these concerns remain relevant, they do not detract from the stark power of “The Short and Tragic Life.” It is a book without an ultimate message of uplift or one of cynicism. It’s actually striking—this could have been a book about race and the Ivy League, or poverty and the Ivy League, or our messed up drug laws, or any number of major issues. But it isn’t. Hobbs wrote a biography of his friend. The simplicity is almost noble. And this means that Rob’s life is compelling enough, in and of itself, to attract the wide audience that this book has garnered.
In the end, “The Short and Tragic Life” is a solid biography of Robert Peace, a product of and outlier from his community, a gifted, kind-hearted, complicated man who led an extraordinary and all-too ordinary life.