Friday, November 7, 2014

Review of The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs

I was drawn to this book by Alex Kotlowitz’s blurb on the book jacket. Kotlowitz is one of my favorite urban storytellers, in no large part because he is self-conscious about his role in that storytelling.  In There are No Children Here, he discusses the muddied waters of the friendship he developed with the family he was “reporting on,” and elsewhere he has played around with the concept of “narration” as an idea.

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League is being discussed as a flashlight of sorts on the complicated relationship between poverty, race, education, and success. On the surface, this is the story of a young African-American achiever who heads to Yale, but who dies violently a decade later in the same community where he started, presumably due to his participation in the drug trade. The author, who was his college roommate, sets out to give more context to Peace’s story and does, indeed, paint a puzzling and real portrait of a man who was enigmatic to many of his friends and family members even in life.

I found this to be an engaging and provocative book. As a reader, the title lets you know that Peace dies young, but it is a gripping page-turner nonetheless. This is good narrative nonfiction.

However, I don’t think this is a story that ultimately sheds light on the topics the author intends. I don’t even think it’s a book about Robert Peace. I think this is a book about the author himself – his unfinished feelings about interracial friendship, the fact that he could never really understand the man he roomed with and cared about, the fact that even with a shared educational experience, they seemed to share little at all. This IS a story about race, but it’s not necessarily the story I was expecting or, perhaps, the one that the author planned to tell.

The fact that this is Hobbs’ own story explains his very dominant narrative voice. There are few quotations here. Though he admits to countless interviews, the voices of the people he’s describing aren’t clear. The reader hears his questions and his inability to really get the answers he seeks (Why didn't Robert Peace take advantage of the opportunities that seemed to be at his feet?).

I do think that the title is not the best one for the book. If we are to believe the author's account, Robert Peace didn’t have a tragic life – the reader learns all about his devotion to his family, his love of ideas, his entrepreneurship, his steady wisdom, his love of travel, and so on. His death was tragic, but not his life. We can wonder why he made the choices he did, and we can mourn the outcome. But it seems like the author is working hard to show the richness of a life that is reduced to a cliché in the newspaper accounts of his death. The title only reinforces that cliché.

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