‘The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace,” young novelist Jeff Hobbs’s first foray into creative nonfiction, combines two major preoccupations of the American mind: First, we have a tale of class-jumping or, in this case, failed class-jumping. A black boy from the ghetto in Newark (actually, Orange, N.J.), with a hard-working single mother and an imprisoned father (for murder), but who is gifted, seemingly brilliant, is admitted to Yale; indeed, he gets a free ride courtesy of a rich white benefactor. Doors open for him as everyone, male and female, who meets Robert Peace seems as star-struck as Jeff Hobbs, his roommate, is. “Rob didn’t give any ground to the anxiety coursing through the students around him. He simply went to class, did his work, got A’s. That he did so while smoking (and dealing) copious amounts of marijuana only made him more of a marvel; he wasn’t just smart, he was cool.” Opportunities are boundless for the charismatic Peace, but he fails to take advantage of any of them.
After graduation, in search of a plan, he travels the globe aimlessly if courageously; he teaches science for a few years at his all-black prep alma mater in Newark; he works for Continental Airlines hauling luggage and tugging planes; he tries to become a real estate tycoon, flipping houses, and fails. All the while, frequently high himself, he is a bottom-feeder in the drug trade, a pursuit he started at Yale, where hustling drugs among privileged, rich whites was easy and made him something of a romantic figure. Being the son of a man in prison for murder didn’t hurt Peace’s image among the upper bourgeoisie either: Imagine that! A black boy majoring in molecular biophysics and biochemistry who, paraphrasing the lyrics of Marvin Gaye, could say “I came up hard” and who wanted to avenge his father’s “false” imprisonment. What could be more romantic for the privileged than to be around someone who was a combination of Hamlet and Macheath!
Hustling around Newark was a lot harder and more dangerous. Peace winds up murdered in his basement drug lair, trying to turn 50 pounds of marijuana into $400,000 without rival drug dealers suspecting anything: a task for which neither Yale nor the streets provided him sufficient schooling.
So, why doesn’t Peace quietly jump classes as he has been given, so to speak, “the price of the ticket”? The crux of the tale is Yale, not just any college or university, where the dissociation (poor black boy, white academic portal to success) is all the more stark and, one supposes, tragic. Many pages remind the reader of the magic and sham of the Yale pedigree. In this sense, “The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace” is something like a reworking of “The Great Gatsby,” with Hobbs as Nick Carraway and Peace as Jay Gatsby, “fronting” — a word used frequently in Hobbs’s work, a slang expression he learned from Peace that means being something you are not. (In an older age, the term would have been “passing.”) In this case, Peace “fronted” as the ghetto boy and the nerd.
This, of course, brings to mind another classic American tale of class-jumping: Mark Twain’s 1882 novel, “The Prince and the Pauper,” which was all about “fronting” or “passing,” intentional and inadvertent. Here, Peace is the pauper who can remain the prince — who, in fact, is supposed to be the prince — but mysteriously abdicates. Maybe Peace became unmoored from the binaries of his imposture. Maybe being the hustler was a way to be more masculine, a way to make up for his absent father, maybe a way to legitimate the father in the son’s eyes. Maybe he never really understood, to paraphrase jazz bassist Charles Mingus, “himself when he was real.”
The second preoccupation is interracial male bonding, which, as the late literary critic Leslie Fiedler long ago pointed out, characterizes a fair amount of classic American literature and no insignificant amount of our popular culture. The book is built on the unlikely friendship between Hobbs, white son of a successful surgeon, and Peace, black son of a murderer from the ghetto. In one sense, this could easily have been parodied as “Tom Sawyer and Jim Go to Yale and What They Do There.” In another sense, it is hard to imagine a writer with no personal connection to Peace being able to generate as much emotional traction in this narrative as Hobbs does, to care as much about portraying fully the depth and intricacy of Peace’s life, his friends and the context of it all. (Although the book is too long, it is an enormous writing feat.)
To be sure, despite the fact that Peace and Hobbs are the same age, it is Peace who is looked up to, who is the leader and teacher for Hobbs. It is not uncommon for the minority person to play this sort of humanizing role in interracial friendship stories. This cliche, sometimes uncomfortable for a minority reader, is, after all, one of the very few generally recognizable ways a white author can show a minority person respect, even honor. Hobbs can’t be faulted for the limitations his society forces him to bear.
The trials and tribulations of the male up-from-the-ghetto story — ranging from Claude Brown’s “Manchild in the Promised Land” (1965) to Wes Moore’s “The Other Wes Moore” (2010) — a staple genre in American literature, are given a fresh, compelling rendering in “The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace.” I was moved enough by Peace’s life and death in Orange to think of Billy Strayhorn’s words: “I’ll live a lush life/ in some small dive/ and there I’ll be/ while I rot with the rest/ of those whose lives are lonely, too.”
THE SHORT AND TRAGIC LIFE
OF ROBERT PEACE
A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League
By Jeff Hobbs
Scribner. 406 pp. $27