By Jeff Hobbs, read by George Newbern
– This biography, which signals its key irony by the subtitle A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League, is an honest and heartfelt tribute to a dear friend. Rob’s many gifts—a brilliant mind, athletic talent, easy social skills, and powerful loyalty to his parents, family, and friends—cry out for a different life path, while the forecast conclusion hangs over the book like a shroud. Nearing the end, the reader wants to go more and more slowly to delay it. Forecast, but foreordained? Hobbs wrestles with this question throughout.
Rob graduated from Yale with a degree in the intellectually rigorous fields of molecular biophysics and biochemistry, and Jeff Hobbs was his roommate there for four years. But in addition to studying and working in a cancer research lab, Rob dealt marijuana. He did it mainly, it seems, to relieve his single mother—a nursing home food service employee—of some of her financial burdens. After graduation, he taught for a while, then lapsed into work as a baggage handler at Newark Airport because that job allowed him to fly free all over the world. He fell in love with Rio, visited Seoul, and kept up with a water polo teammate in Croatia. Now in his mid-20s, he continued to deal marijuana, even though the gang-infused streets of East Orange and Newark had become many times more dangerous than in the past.
Although Hobbs recorded the thoughts of so many friends and acquaintances Peace had during his post-college years, he cannot definitively answer the urgent question that so many of them asked Rob repeatedly and urgently, “What are you doing?” A question that is as much unanswered as, perhaps, unanswerable. They saw the growing danger and weren’t satisfied with his typical answer: “It’s all good.”
But it was not. When Rob was a boy his father went to prison for a pair of murders he most likely didn’t commit, and Rob took on the job of looking after his hard-working mother. She sacrificed mightily to keep him into private school, to see her dreams flower with his Yale education then burst when he just somehow couldn’t grab onto a life that would keep him moving forward.
Rob was the son of two entirely separate worlds—a New Jersey ghetto and a privileged Ivy League university. “That one man can contain such contradictions makes for an astonishing, tragic story,” said New York Times reviewer Anand Giridharadas, “but it becomes something more: an interrogation of our national creed of self-invention.” Try as we might, “there are origins in this country of ours that cannot be escaped,” he says, believing the most significant of which may be lack of an intact family.
Hobbs’s prose is unadorned. He’s writing about a friend, after all, and actor Newbern’s narration fits the text well. The clichés Giridharadas objected to in his review are probably not as glaring in the audio version as they would be on the page and, while the writing isn’t lyrical, it gets the job done, building an indelible portrait of so much good forever lost.