Saturday, October 4, 2014

#BookReview: The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League by Jeff Hobbs

That Rob Peace dies so young isn't a spoiler.  The author tells you up front in the title that it's going to happen. But to watch such a promising life squelched is still tragic, regardless of how it came to be.  Jeff Hobbs goes into lengthy detail to explain how his college roommate, a man with a degree in molecular biochemistry and biophysics from Yale, came to be gunned down in a basement in Newark less than 10 years after graduation.

Like a cartoon character with an angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other, Robert DeShaun Peace grows up with a mother that encourages reading and book learning (the angel) and a father that encourages street learning (the devil).  In her thirties when she gets pregnant with Rob, Jackie already knows that life in Newark can be tough, but she's prepared to raise her son to be the brilliant man she knows he can be.  Rob excels in school and earns the nickname of the professor from his classmates and teachers.  Sacrificing and working long hours to keep her son in private schools and focused on life beyond the family home, no one is happier than Jackie when Rob is accepted to Yale.

Known around the neighborhood by all, Skeet is a born hustler.  He's smart, Jackie wouldn't have dated a man that wasn't, and he's a good person.  Though he dabbles in selling drugs, he watches out for others.  Everyone that knows him likes him and Rob delights in walking the neighborhood with his father, stopping to talk on someone's stoop on one block and joining someone else's barbecue on another.

The ability to balance walking the straight and narrow while keeping your ear to the streets is difficult and Jeff Hobbs does a great job of portraying his friend's struggle to do just that.  Rob Peace had a lot of friends.  With his quiet, yet unassuming presence, he seemed to draw people to him like bees to honey.  He straddled many worlds from the streets of Newark, to the world of water polo, from Yale to a favela in Rio and a small town in Croatia.  His father's grooming trained him to be a leader among men and make friends wherever he went.  His mother's home training groomed him to be a protector of all, men and women alike, but especially women.

So how does a man who breezes through biophysics turn to drug dealing?  Hobbs doesn't really have an answer for this, but his portrayal of Rob leads me to believe it was a combination of a few things: lack of direction and a vested interest in seeing others around him succeed to the detriment of himself.  His mother seems to realize that the latter was his biggest downfall, but never seemed to be able to get that message through to him.  Like his father, Rob always wanted to be the man that everyone could depend on and, while he was alive, he was.  The need to hustle to help his mother and grandparents pay bill; giving others money to pay rent when he was barely getting by himself; forming study groups to help his friends pass classes; all things that weigh heavily on someone.  While Rob had everyone else's back, very few had his.  Jackie recognized that, saw it weighing him down, but was helpless to do anything about it.

Though I said Rob had lack of direction, I don't even know if that was it.  He seemed to know what he wanted, he just didn't know how to get there and, as the leader of his friends, there was no one there to tell him because everyone looked to him to tell them how to achieve their dreams, including the author.  It's obvious that Rob Peace's story is dear to the author.  The amount of time he had to have spent interviewing people Rob knew to reconstruct his life story had to have been overwhelming, but he does a good job of putting it all together and presenting it in a way that keeps you captivated and hoping that, in the final pages, you'll learn that Rob is still alive and working a boring lab job on the campus of Yale.

Published: September 2014
Disclaimer: Copy of book received from publisher, opinions are my own.