Straddling two worlds: poverty and privilege

robert-peaceJeff Hobbs grew up a child of privilege. The son of a doctor, he was raised in an 18th Century farmhouse on 15 acres of rolling hills in rural Delaware, 30 miles from Philadelphia. Jeff attended private schools and followed his father and older brother to Yale, where he was a track star and, like everyone else, an academic overachiever.

Rob Peace grew up a child of poverty. The only child born to an unwed mother who worked in a kitchen, he was just a young boy when his father was imprisoned for the murders of two women who lived in their neighborhood near Newark, New Jersey. He grew up in the midst of poverty, drugs, violence, crime and a culture of low expectations. Yet, he too made it to Yale.

Intellectually gifted and uncommonly self-determined, Rob attended an all-boys prep school in the inner city, became a star water polo player (of all things), then won a full scholarship to Yale, where he majored in molecular biophysics and biochemistry.

Thrown together as freshman roommates, Hobbs and Peace overcome their obvious differences — one white, one black; one rich, one poor; one arriving with a sense of expectation and possibility, the other thrown into a jarring environment different in every conceivable way from the street life few of his peers managed to escape.

If you’re thinking this sounds like the foundation of a compelling nonfiction book, you’d be right. But it’s not about — or at least not primarily about — two young Ivy Leaguers becoming Best Friends Forever.

No, it’s about one young man’s seemingly unlimited potential, the enormous pressures on him to support his family and friends, and the sad, sudden death of that young man. Most of all, it’s a meticulously researched, even-handed account of the double life that Rob Peace led as he tried to straddle two worlds defined by privilege and poverty. He was shot dead at age 30, in a case that remains officially unsolved but points to rival drug dealers in his old neighborhood.

I first heard about “The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace” from a New York Times book review last fall. In December, I received it as a surprise birthday gift. And now that I’ve finished it, I can say it is a superb effort by the author, Jeff Hobbs, to write honestly about his former college roommate and what led to his terrible end.

Imagine his challenge: to break away from his L.A. home, where he is a househusband and aspiring novelist, and dive into a world as foreign to him as he could ever imagine. During the years Rob was growing up, more than one in three Newark residents lived below the poverty line.  The city’s violent crime rate was so consistently high that a 1996 Time magazine article called it the most dangerous city in America.

Rob Peace during graduation weekend in 2002.

Rob Peace during graduation weekend in 2002.

Hobbs interviews everyone he can — Rob’s family members and friends, high school teachers, college buddies and more. He tells the story of young, precocious Rob and his lifelong friends, the Burger Boyz, who together attended St. Benedict’s Prep. He writes of generational poverty; of Jackie Peace’s unrelenting sacrifices to give her son a chance to rise above; of his father’s imprisonment when he was just 7 — and of Rob’s never-ending efforts, as a teenager and continuing at Yale, to free his father on appeal.

The result is a compelling, 360-degree take on his college roommate. Hobbs offers a clear-eyed account of Rob’s two lives — navigating his way on a campus full of overachievers while never losing his sense of identity or street cred. Rob travels home frequently to visit his mother and his imprisoned father. He hangs with friends, smokes weed, sells dope, goes to parties — and all this he must do without calling attention to himself as a Yalie.

Post-graduation, Hobbs writes of his ex-roommate’s schemes to earn money flipping houses rather than working a conventional job. Rob teaches for a while at his alma mater but quits. He puts off graduate school, gets a job with Continental Airlines hauling luggage so he can travel the world and, ultimately, concocts a scheme to buy and sell a huge quantity of marijuana, planning to make a killing on the profits and then quit the drug trade.

It’s not to be.

Jeff Hobbs

Jeff Hobbs

One reviewer calls the book “a moral fable for our times” and “a tour de force of compassion and insight.” Another calls it a “poignant and powerful can’t-put-it-down book about friendship and loss.”

It’s all that, I agree. Hobbs describes clashing cultures with nuance and insight. He is sympathetic to Rob but not an apologist. He strives to explain Rob without judging him, striving to help the reader understand why his friend might have done the things he did.

Ultimately, it’s 402 pages of high-quality writing and impressive research. It would be easy to condemn Rob Peace as one who squandered his vast potential. But truth is more complicated than cliche. Jeff Hobbs’ book leaves you — or should leave you — with an appreciation for the multifaceted struggle faced by any gifted young person trying to bridge the physical and emotional realities of two worlds as different as Newark and the Ivy League.

Listen to an interview with Jeff Hobbs on NPR.

Read a review in The Washington Post.

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