Friday, December 19, 2014

Book Review - The Short, Tragic Life of Robert Peace

If you are not averse to suffering, both your own and another’s, I highly recommend The Short, Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs. It is the story of a brilliant but impoverished son of an unwed mother and an incarcerated father near Newark, NJ who defies the odds to matriculate at Yale. After graduating with honors and a degree in Molecular Biology and Biophysics, he returns to Newark on a temporary way-stop to a new life. A series of unfortunate decisions sees him still in Newark ten years later, increasingly involved in the drug trade, where he meets an untimely but not wholly unsurprising end.

Perhaps because it is a true story, this is the most moving book that I’ve ever read. I wept. As much for Robert, I wept for Jackie, his mother, especially when it became clear that she was resolute in her grieving, as if she expected it all along; as if she knew that even a Yale degree could not protect a young man from the ravages of the ‘hood.

Robert Peace’s tragedy was so complete that it could not have been crafted more artfully by Shakespeare. And here I am talking about the story itself, not Hobbs’ rendering of it. The writing is only average. The prose is often clunky and overwrought, as if Hobbs is trying more to prove what a fine writer Hobbs is, rather than what a tragic character Peace was. When you read the story, you’ll understand why, as it is partly autobiographical: Hobbs was Peace’s roommate for four years at Yale. But while the prose’s averageness detracts from the story, it won’t make you stop reading. You can’t. You’ll be drawn inexorably toward its grim conclusion.

The book has spawned a plethora of blogposts, editorials and book reviews. They are all trying to figure out what the story means. Why did Robert Peace have to die a violent, drug-related death?

There are so many issues to tease out that it’s impossible to know where to begin. Peace’s tale is woven with issues of race, poverty, education, privilege, culture, family, friendship and loyalty. It transports us through an always interesting, sometimes confounding series of events, all of which seem to point toward a singular, desolate conclusion.

Some are tempted to conclude, as does Peace’s mother Jackie, that the ‘hood exerts too strong a hold on its inhabitants to allow escape. That, more specifically, the barriers which are placed at the edges of such a place - cultural, monetary, sartorial - are so great that they cannot be scaled. And once caught inside, young men are given only two options in the long-term: incarceration or violent death.

Others are tempted to conclude that our political and economic systems are to blame; that if only we could provide more education, more housing and food, more comfort to those unlucky enough to live in a place like Peace’s neighborhood, people would find their own way out or the neighborhood itself would be changed for the better.

For the first conclusion to be true, however, we must be shown that it cannot have been any other way. But the book refutes this conclusion by relating the story of Oswaldo Gutierrez, also a Newark-bred Yale graduate, and friend of Peace. By the end of the book, Gutierrez was at Harvard Medical School, firmly on his way to a comfortable life as a physician. Gutierrez finally spurns Peace when he learns of the completeness of Peace’s regression.

Perhaps there is some truth to the second theory. But in the case of Peace, this argument is insufficient. Because in reality, Peace found all the resources he needed: the monks at St. Benedict’s high school; his water polo coach; his mother and even his incarcerated father; and finally, a wealthy benefactor. The combination of these people and resources were enough to get him up and out to Yale. But then he came back, and ultimately forsook everything they had given him.

No, in my estimation the answer to the riddle of Robert Peace is much simpler. The answer has nothing to do with race or poverty or culture, although each of these things was a precondition to the tragedy. No, this is not so much a story about a race or culture as it is about a person.

Because people are different. For one, different people have different tolerances for risk. Not unimportantly, they also derive different amounts of pleasure from being high. They also tend to operate at different levels of competency while stoned. Robert Peace was a risk-tolerant young man who liked to smoke pot, and who operated at a very high level while stoned - high enough, apparently, to graduate with honors from Yale even though he was stoned a good part of his time there.

It is helpful, I think, to the ponder the question from the other direction. To what extent are Peace’s cultural opposites - white, wealthy, well-educated legacies from stable families in stable geographies - inclined toward the kinds of pursuits which ultimately got Peace into trouble? While it’s dangerous to generalize from personal experience, I must admit that I know more than one of these types who, pistol pointed at their heads while engaged in a drug buy in the ‘hood, were one wrong word away from a fate similar to Peace’s. And without resorting to any statistics, I think that we can all conclude that devastation wrought by substance abuse does not limit itself to the underclass.

Indeed there are plenty of instances where the wealthy are brought down by their various addictions. My grandmother used to call it "affluenza." She had some experience, as certain of her own male family relations suffered from it. Just like young men in the ‘hood have varying predilections (or not) for the seamier side of life there, so do the rest of us in our own sphere.

And in the end, that’s why this was a tragedy. All the most important elements of Peace’s demise were present inside him the whole time. We already know that Gutierrez made it out - why didn’t Peace? Well, because he wouldn’t let himself get out. The tragedy, in this case, was all the more compelling because of those preconditions I mentioned earlier. Throughout the story, we cheered for Robert and his unlikely successes. Like Gutierrez, we positively yearned for Peace to just get the hell out, to set up shop somewhere safe and comforting. Alas, he didn’t, and it breaks the heart.

1 comment:

WendyBee said...

I have run across your blog because, having just finished Jeff Hobbs' account of the life and death of Robert Peace, I am very unsettled, and poking around the internet to find intelligent and interesting discussions of the book, or more specifically, the questions it raises.
Robert Peace's life, opportunities and choices are in some ways foreign considerations for me. You see, I live in Maine, which is demographically the "whitest" state in the nation, and perhaps unrelatedly also the most peaceful state ( Perhaps my cultural experience contributes to my over-simplified assumptions of the role native intelligence, education and opportunity play in correcting poverty and injustice. Mr. Hobbs' account of Robert Peace's life belies the myth.
I find your estimation of Mr. Hobbs' writing as average best left unspoken, and quite necessary. While I am wholly unqualified to comment on the quality of anyone's writing, for me, I thought his handling of the story informed and skillful, in that he unfolds the tale compellingly, illuminating what facts could uncover, while acknowledging questions whose answers remain unknown. He avoids eulogistically exaggerating Mr. Peace's virtues or those of his long-suffering mother, or magnifying his own role for that matter, straining for objectivity, coveting truth.
I agree that Robert Peace's trajectory was ultimately sealed by his choices, but I am particularly struck by how he came to make those choices. I think he was undone by his quest to redeem his father. Whether or not Skeet was guilty of murder/manslaughter, he was guilty of modeling criminal activity as a viable means of fulfilling the provider role of manhood. Robert could not reconcile that emulating Skeet was antithetical to success and achievement, and unknowingly, Jackie was complicit.
My point is to say that while I think it's true that Robert Peace's fate was the result of his own choices, I also think that it is easy to underestimate the power that his father's example (conveniently divorced from his father's fate) set for Robert. As the over-educated under-achieving mother of three boys, I have done a great deal of reading and thinking about how to guide each one into manhood, shaping critical thinkers, instilling values. And as Robert Peace shows us, there is a lot at stake in getting it right.