Arts & Culture

Remembering Rob

The tragic story of an alum’s early death.

Nicholas Dawidoff is the author of five books, including The Fly Swatter, a Pulitzer finalist.

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The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League
Jeff Hobbs ’02
Scribner, $27
Reviewed by Nicholas Dawidoff

Rare is the joy of encountering a superb new book and with it a memorable real-life literary character. By age three Rob Peace was known at day care as The Professor, for his vivid, searching mind. At home, when his mother read him books, he had them memorized after the first time. By junior high, Peace was the sort of kid who read Light in August for fun. He took college math and science courses in high school and was the leader of his class, chosen to resolve student conflicts. He went to Yale, Class of ’02, and excelled at difficult pursuits—molecular biophysics and biochemistry; cancer research—while navigating the stressful problem sets posed by a background unimaginable to most Ivy League students.

Peace grew up in the dangerous slums around Newark, where his adored father, Skeet, was a day laborer and small-time drug dealer. Skeet considered penmanship to be among life’s highest virtues, preached academic rigor to his preschool-aged boy—and taught him to use his elbows in a street fight. Skeet liked to take little Rob with him on his sidewalk rounds, interactions whose rhythms of parlay Peace found too appealing. Peace was still in grade school when Skeet fell into big-time trouble that derailed both his own life and eventually, in ways subtle and corrosive, his son’s.

Left alone with his resourceful, poorly paid mother, Jackie, Peace grew up in deprivation such that when he joined his friends at Burger King he saved money by limiting himself to sucking on ketchup packets. Nonetheless, he thrived in high school and at Yale as a model student and a revered person. Possessed of persistence, self-control, and a penetrating emotional intelligence, Peace was a cherished friend both to men and women, a charismatic confessor—yet “incredibly skilled at not showing how he felt.” Peace had survived childhood, he said, by “Newark-proofing” himself: fashioning a range of protective selves. Before he left New Jersey for New Haven, he had a sphinx tattooed on his bicep.

Peace was also, like Skeet, a self-destructive hustler. He was a leading Yale weed connect and later a street dealer who grew his own strain of designer marijuana. Given the book’s title, it’s not spoiling anything to say that Peace, who had the world’s back but not his own, died young in a way that the many people who admired and cared about him found beyond troubling.

Jeff Hobbs was Peace’s roommate at Yale, and Da Jeffrey, as Peace called him, wanted to understand his tragic friend’s rise and fall. Hobbs was a prize-winning writing student at Yale and he is the author of a novel, and his information gathering was rigorous and dispassionate: he treated the brevity of Peace’s life as a kind of crime that he sought to investigate. Then he sat down and distilled the many, many facts into stellar nonfiction.

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace teems with lively characters: people from the neighborhood, high school water-polo teammates, college lovers, and workplace pals. They escort you into Peace’s veiled worlds. (The moments when Peace counsels his high school friend Tavarus> after a fistfight and when he stands up for the validity of a wealthy Yale student’s sufferings are both quietly unforgettable.) In a similarly understated way the book manages to cover ample topical ground—what happens to cities when highways are built through them, the infrastructure of single parent homes, and social dynamics among Yale’s African American students. Hobbs’s deeper concerns are emotional themes like self-pity, aspiration, loyalty, curtailed ambition, and “fronting,” and it’s all so carefully constructed that, from the first, the sense of impending tragedy is gripping, and then finally devastating.

One significant challenge Hobbs confronts is that of being an upper-middle-class white guy writing about poor black guys. I doubt many will wince. Instead, not only do you come to feel you know Peace’s community, but you also think, along with Hobbs, about the nature of Peace’s interactions. Hobbs makes Peace’s story a version of every college student’s experience, every young man’s coming of age—just more extreme. The complexity of Peace’s gift for friendship with women and parallel inability to sustain romantic relationships is handled with particular insight. A man of such intricate parts was Peace that, after a while, I came to think of him as a classroom version of shimmering urban playground legends like Joe “The Destroyer” Hammond, who skipped the NBA to sell drugs; and Earl “The Goat” Manigault>, who had it all, who was the greatest basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar says he ever saw, but who likewise ruined himself.

Or did the world ruin Peace? The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace is a grave, important book. The death of a young black son of a single mother and an imprisoned father is a subject to which many Americans bring charged preconceptions. Hobbs knows this and he overcomes them—he deepens the crucial national conversation. Only those who simply can’t feel sympathy for a drug dealer will be left cold. As for the rest, a common reaction will, I think, be anger for the brutal waste of it all. That anger will have something to do with another strong emotion. Da Jeffrey loved Peace, and so will you.

For many readers, this book will bring to mind Remembering Denny, the fine portrait by Calvin Trillin> ’57 of an admired, tragic Yale classmate. Hobbs’s is the superior work because it is so unusually intimate and humane. Excellent books are that way; they make you think of other excellent books. I thought often of two famous stories about talented, troubled young men, James Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues and Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It. Both conclude too soon for most readers.

With Hobbs it’s the opposite. Two thirds of the way through, his account begins to feel a bit long, as though he couldn’t bear to part for a second time with Peace. When he does let him go, the end comes abruptly. I wished for more authorial reflection on the book’s unanswered core questions, but the sudden finish has the hand of logic. That’s how it must have felt to people who knew Rob Peace.


  • David Miller
    David Miller, 10:21am October 16 2014 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Reading this right now and am really, for lack of a better way of wording it, enjoying it.

    Very sad to know it doesn't end well, but the writing is easy to grasp and makes me wish I could have known Rob as well.

  • Lori Rosen
    Lori Rosen, 8:53am October 25 2014 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    The writer is as gifted as his subject. I am almost finished and don't want the book to end knowing the outcome. Profound is so many ways.

  • Liz Morrill
    Liz Morrill, 12:04am October 26 2014 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    I just finished the book. It was beautifully written, and it has made me incredibly sad. I feel such pain for Rob's mother. Such pain.

  • Alison Mark
    Alison Mark, 4:13pm November 08 2014 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    The book gives such a clear sense of the struggle for certain students to succeed. It clearly illustrates how the difficult environment in which someone is raised can destroy even the brightest, most promising intellect. I am sad that Rob Peace did not fulfill his dreams and build a good life for himself. Maybe if he had opened up to someone who could have helped advise and comfort him, his story would have ended differently. Truly heartbreaking. And how many other bright, capable students exist that are living a life well below their aptitudes because of the environment in which they were raised.

  • Marnie Kaplan
    Marnie Kaplan, 2:31pm November 11 2014 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Just finished the book and probably need more time for reflection and a cogent response. At first I found myself annoyed by Jeff Hobbs and the way he presented himself but over time I appreciated that he was authentic to who he was during the time period. I wish the book had taken a step back to tell us where all of the characters are now, or even just to provide more sense. But maybe there is no big conclusion we can draw. I also wanted more of Jackie's voice. I wonder how she feels about the book. It's a strange world we live in: an aspiring writer lived with a low-income black man at Yale and that man downfall became the writer's biggest story. No one can fault Jeff Hobbs for wanting to uncover Robert's story. I know I too would have wanted to make sense of his story. But it's still somewhat weird to consider.

  • Tom Kowieski
    Tom Kowieski, 11:21am May 30 2015 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    First, I thought Jeff Hobbs did a masterful job of telling Rob's story. He is to be commended for all the legwork involved in tracking down so many of Rob's varied friends and getting them to open up. Jeff's narration had just the right tone on so many levels. I came to really care about Rob and thought he was an extraordinary young man. So the book's title is very appropriate. It was a very tragic life.

    Without overtly attempting to this book raises so many questions about our society. Yes, Rob's life ended in tragedy. But the larger tragedy is the the fact that so many young black men are living some variation of Rob's life with little or no hope of something better. And its a tragedy for all of us in this country that this is happening. In some ways we all lose.

    I think one of the reasons I was so touched by Rob's story is due to the fact that for the last six years I have been a mentor to four young black men. Sadly three of the four have either a mom or dad in prison and two of the teenagers have both in prison. I don't know how they get through each day let alone year after year. They are great kids who of course deserve better. I know I've benefited from our relationship as much or more as them, but the difficult thing for me is knowing life probably won't get any better. They are not good students like Rob so that avenue is closed. And like Rob, these boys have been swimming upstream ever since they were born.

    So kudos Jeff Hobbs. I hope you can sell this story and have it made into a movie. This is a tale that needed telling and this country needs to have a conversation about all the Rob Peace's that are still out there.

  • gary stone
    gary stone, 12:29pm June 19 2015 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    As I read how Rob's tragic life unfolded it occurred to me that he was only a "grown up man" on the outside. Inside he was still this kid from the drug-dealing hood, who hung out with people who didn't care for him as he cared for them; Although, it could be argued that Hobbs, romanticized him and downplayed his evil side a bit, which is bound to happen when an author has an a relationship with this subject of his book.

    I was totally taken aback when he told his girl to buy guns and resell them illegally for a profit. Ultimately, he died by the same sword her told to sell. It was his mercenary side that the author describes in the end of the book, where he gets "mules" to sell drugs for him, not caring who the mules sold to that diminished my sympathy for Rob towards the end of the book.

    Sadly, there appeared to be multiple opportunities by adults who were his life, educators and role models, who work with students like Rob who have a myriad of psychosocial and financial issues, need to intervene at warning signs. Unfortunately, administrators at Yale missed opportunities to intervene in Robs life and guide him. I hope administrators at Yale learned a lesson for their quasi complicity in failing to reach out to this young man! Failing to confront him by giving him an ultimatum--stop dealing drugs, enter drug counseling services or say goodbye to Yale. I hope Yale brings in more minority counselors that can identify with backgrounds and challenges faced by kids like Robert Peace, so this is the last time such a tragedy occurs there. I hope there's mercy in Heaven for Rob and his father, (if he was innocent of the double murders he was convicted of)

  • Jacquelyn Chappel
    Jacquelyn Chappel, 1:18am September 13 2015 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Gary, I too was completely taken aback when he started goading his girlfriend to buy and sell guns illegally! But please let's not go blaming his educators for not intervening. Yale could have expelled his ass, but knowing that would not have helped the situation any, they practiced leniency. And in response, Rob toned it down. It was the right response and current administrators looking back on his case today, I don't think, would do things differently. Counseling? Psha, as Rob would have said. His friends, from Yale and the street alike, all in their own way discouraged him from selling drugs, and *he did not listen*.

  • maria franko
    maria franko, 4:13pm September 30 2015 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    I found myself saying over and over'why didnt anyone at yale or any of robs friends discuss tru e danger in his drug dealing?with such 8ntellugence rob could have found higher paying jobs in the sciences....sad story. Where is jackie now?

  • john raffensperger, MD
    john raffensperger, MD, 5:25pm October 24 2015 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    As a comparison of self sacrifice, postponement of self gratification and self discipline, read, "The Boys on The Boat". The main character of "The Boys--" was born in poverty during the depression, his mother died and his father left home when he was very young. He worked, put himself through the U.of Washington, was on the 8 man rowing team that won the 1936 Olympics and went on to a successful career. Then, read "God and Man At Yale" by William F. Buckley. Buckley condemns Yale for the laissez-fair system of education that neglects religion as well as moral and spiritual guidance. Did anyone, roommate classmate, professor or counselor discuss the dangers of excessive use of marihuana and alcohol with Mr. Peace? The author, Mr. Hobbs is fortunate that he did not fry his own brain with drugs and alcohol.

  • A Lopez
    A Lopez, 11:19pm December 01 2015 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Jackie "(refused to spend money on a weave)" because women did not wear weaves in 1979, the year of this particular description. Sigh. To his credit he did state in his introduction that some things that he couldn't verify he simply interpreted but now I'm inclined to question what more he's taken license with. This was an easy thing to validate (or omit).

  • Shoshana Isenberg
    Shoshana Isenberg, 10:15am December 06 2015 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    I just finished reading this. Wow, one of the saddest things I have read in a long time. This is a true tragedy, in the old "Greek tragedy" sense. More so because there is no "bad guy" to pin the blame on, everyone has their share. And while it is definitely about race and class, it's not just about that. I have watched some very bright kids (including rich, white kids) get very lost after college graduation, when suddenly the path to "success" becomes so much murkier. It is ironic that this book, and indirectly Rob's fall, became Hobbs' ticket to his own success. But I guess that's part of the strangeness of life.

  • rachel
    rachel , 7:00pm December 07 2015 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    what do you guys think was a key aspect that lead to Rob's death? feel free to contact me

  • donovan carter
    donovan carter, 7:06pm March 04 2016 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    I was wondering how long it would take for the Yale "ruling class" to remove my previous posting. Rachel (above)can confirm my prediction

    The ruling class killed Rob Peace.

  • Chas
    Chas , 6:09pm July 13 2016 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    was looking for summer reading and picked this book up! TRagic yes but very very real. I have relatives with this level of academic intelligence and the book gave me insight into some of the whys . many of their lives ended the same way. THanks Jeff for putting this story out there. stories like Rob Peace's are real!

  • David Jefferson
    David Jefferson, 7:45pm September 24 2016 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    I read this book and found it to be engrossing and left a lasting impression of troubled disbelief. Why did Robert Peace not rise above the world he was born into and navigate the academic universe he had mastered? The marijuana use and distribution he participated in was likely a factor. Youth and intellect can equate to perceived invinceabiliy. It's also likely no one could have talked Rob out the choices he made. In the book it appeared Rob burned bridges in raising money for the marijuana purchase to finance a real estate venture. As mentioned the weapons sales scheme shows a desperation or a broken moral compass. Probably better questions than statements. More questions: did the means justify the end state for Rob? I guess the only comfort that can be found for those who loved Robert Peace is the simple exercise of remembering his extraordinary attributes.

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