Man Down

Anand Giridharadas in The New York Times:

BlackThere are places in America where life is so cheap and fate so brutal that, if they belonged to another country, America might bomb that country to “liberate” them. This book is a mesmeric account of such a place — a ghetto near Newark — that asks the consummate American question: Is it possible to reinvent yourself, to sculpture your own destiny? “The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace” seeks answers in the true story of two men, reared in the same mostly black, mostly luckless neighborhood, whose trajectories spectacularly diverge. One man is Shawn, born to a sweet-talking, drug-pushing father named Skeet, who tries to keep his son from books, fearing they will make him too soft for a hard world. Instead, Skeet teaches Shawn how to fight, intimidate, know everyone on avenues where it’s lethal not to. When Skeet is imprisoned for killing two women, Shawn inherits his friends. He becomes a dealer, too, eventually sleeping in his car, wearing a Kevlar vest. The other man is Rob, son of a feistily aspirational mother, who, while toiling in kitchens, wishes for her child the escape she never had. She borrows books from the local library to read to her small son, and later buys him the first volume of an encyclopedia, getting additional ones, letter by letter, when she can afford them. She navigates their bleak world to find institutions and people who will help him. A Benedictine school rescues Rob. A bank executive offers to pay all his college expenses. Yale accepts him. He majors in molecular biophysics and biochemistry, and works in a cancer and infectious disease laboratory.

What makes this book so devastating is that these two men, Rob and Shawn, are really one: Robert DeShaun Peace, who went from a New Jersey ghetto to Yale to wherever men go after dying face down, knees bent, in a drug-related murder.

More here.