Newark shooting death of Yale grad Robert Peace becomes subject of national bestseller

By Vicki Hyman | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on November 04, 2014

Novelist Jeff Hobbs has written a non-fiction book about his Yale college roommate Robert Peace, a promising scholar who turned to marijuana dealing and was shot to death in Newark in 2011. (Left, courtesy of Peace family; right, Simon & Schuster)

 

Robert Peace was so precocious his nursery school teachers nicknamed him "the Professor."

So single-minded, he only learned to swim in high school — but soon became one of the best butterflyers in the state.

So promising, he was given a blank check by a bank executive to cover all his college costs, after the businessman met Peace at Newark's St. Benedict's Prep senior banquet.

And Peace, the son of a hard-working single mother from East Orange and a father imprisoned for a double murder, was so skilled at slipping between the streets and the Ivy League that his college pals didn't know he saved up $100,000 selling marijuana to fellow students while studying biochemistry at Yale, and that he returned to drug dealing in his 20s — a decision that led to died in a shooting">his shooting death in his Newark marijuana growhouse in 2011 at the age of 30.

In many ways, this New Jersey tale — told in a much-buzzed-about new book, "The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace," by Peace's Yale roommate Jeff Hobbs — is the photo-negative of the race-inflamed narratives that have gripped the nation in the few years, notably the shootings death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Oscar Grant in Oakland, Calif.

In Peace's case, an impoverished African-American youth seemed to escape his circumstances but returned to the street and lost his life at the hands of more hardened criminals. But — just like those others recent tragedies — it's also a tale of the systemic poverty, limited options and damaging assumptions faced by scores of young African-American men. Peace never had the safety net that cradled most of his Yale classmates, and the tension of existing in two vastly different worlds took its toll.

"That's the troubling part," says Hobbs, in recent interview. "We all have bad luck and we all make decisions, but because of the circumstances he was brought into, you know, his bad decisions were life-ending."

When Peace's college benefactor Charles Cawley heard about his violent end, he wondered, like many, about the opportunities Peace had been given, and the choices he had made since the night of that banquet.

"And he figured that the choices hadn't necessarily begun on that night," Hobbs writes in the book. "Most likely, they'd begun on the night he was born, and not all of them had been his to make."

"He certainly wasn't a thug"

Jeff Hobbs &mdash a novelist based in Los Angeles, who lived with Peace for all four years at Yale &mdash almost immediately recognized the spark of the story after attending Peace's funeral.

"Outside the church, there was an awful lot of people who were almost eager to condemn Rob as a petty thug, a cliché of squandered potential," he explains. "Obviously the potential wasn't squandered. He certainly wasn't a thug."

Hobbs reached out to Peace's mother Jackie, a cafeteria worker who scrimped to send her bright son to private school (the eighth-grader filled out the financial paperwork for St. Benedict's himself and calculated the best way she could make the payments) to reconstruct — or create, perhaps, for the first time — a full picture of the man.

Hobbs spoke to Jackie at length, as well as teachers, mentors and dozens of friends from "Illtown," as they called East Orange, and from Yale. Local politicians and law enforcement officials including now-U.S. Sen. Cory Booker shed insight on the demographics and challenges of governing and policing Newark and its environs.

He even spoke to the men who investigated the murders of the sisters believed killed by Peace's father. He notes that when Charlene and Estella Moore were killed in 1987, police found their suspect within 28 hours. No one has ever been identified as Peace's shooter.

In these conversations, Hobbs says, "We started to realize there was something much bigger here, something positive that can come out of this terrible loss — the power of empathy. There's so much triumph and generosity and good fortune and loyalty in his story. It's just worth showing, there's a lot more to life than how that life ends."

Striking an unexpected chord

When Jeff Hobbs first told Jackie about the book he had in mind, he told her there was very little chance it would ever be published. Instead, the book was acquired by Scribner and has been building buzz since last spring's Book Expo of America. The reviews have been extremely strong: The New York Times Book Review described it as "mesmeric"; The Washington Post compared it to "The Great Gatsby," "with Hobbs as Nick Carraway and Peace as Jay Gatsby." The book, which also spent two weeks on the Times non-fiction bestsellers list this month, may be headed for the big screen, with director Antoine Fuqua ("Training Day," "The Equalizer") slated to direct.

What seems to fascinate people about Peace's story is his duality, Hobbs says, and how that upends the absolutist arguments on both sides of the culture wars.

Hobbs describes Peace as a master of compartmentalization; some friends at Yale knew his father was imprisoned, but few knew the details, and that Peace had been working for years to overturn the conviction on several grounds, including lack of a speedy trial.

And when he returned to his old neighborhood on breaks (and to pick up supply for his New Haven customers), he wouldn't say much about school. Hobbs writes that though Peace was contemptuous of the idea of "fronting" — pretending to be something you're not, a nerd who acts dumb, a rich kid who acts poor — offensive, he only survived his childhood this way, wearing different masks at home with his mother, at St. Benedict's, on the street.

"It really just represents the messiness of being a person, and have a consciousness, and having values — sometimes conflicting values," Hobbs says. "And in a culture that seems most comfortable addressing its most troublesome issues such as a education and race in the news — you always see those clear, bombastic, two-sided discourses — I think maybe Rob's story shows the real issues, the real solutions, they are going to exist in between."

In the book, Hobbs imagines Peace's response to this bit of pop sociology. "'I'm not fronting,' he might have said. 'I'm just complicated.'"

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