A Review of Curtis Dawkins’ “The Graybar Hotel”

Prison Writing

“The Graybar Hotel” Book Cover

There are some entertainers who do dastardly, horrible things. People such as Woody Allen and Roman Polanski have done things that may be offensive, and, in Polanski’s case at the very least, that are just plain criminal. But does that mean we have to stop liking their art? Does that mean that their art carries little weight? It’s that kind of question that readers of Curtis Dawkins’ The Graybar Hotel may be asking themselves when they know the author’s backstory — a backstory that the publisher isn’t backing away from, thankfully.

Dawkins is a MFA graduate who was also a chronic alcohol and drug abuser. On Halloween 2004, he staged a botched home robbery and killed a man. He’s been in Michigan state prisons ever since. His sentence is life, with no hope of ever being paroled. And yet he’s managed to spend the time in jail — and inmates, as it turns out, have a lot of free time in exchange for their freedom — to crank out a series of seemingly interlinked short stories that have been collected in this volume.

This is the thing with The Graybar Hotel — they aren’t just a collection of different stories. The short stories feel as though they are a part of a larger work. The book starts in the county jail — I didn’t know this until I read this book, but there’s a difference between a jail and a prison (jail is where they hold you until you’ve been sentenced to prison, and prison is where you serve out the rest of your sentence) — and ends up with a character earning his freedom. The book is the long arc of the prisoner, from being a fresh arrival in the justice system to being much harder and more jaded.

Now before you get self-righteous on me, a few things should be spelled out — even if I feel somewhat torn on judging this book myself. If the notion of reading a prisoner’s book upsets you, all of the proceeds from the book are going to the author’s children’s college funds. Hawkins is not profiting from his crime, and since he doesn’t really write about it, it’s a moot point. Second, there’s a whole genre of jailhouse fiction written by prisoners from Malcolm Braly’s On the Yard to Roger Caron’s Go-Boy! To really learn about prison, you have to read something from someone who has been there.

The nice thing about Dawkins’ writing is that there are no clichés, really. Nobody gets raped, for one thing. Plus, as his publisher notes, Dawkins has a way with metaphor. Take this image at the end of one story, where the author relates an encounter at a high-school graduation party with the class valedictorian, a young woman drinking beer. “She finished her beer, then handed me her empty cup. She told me she didn’t need drugs to escape. She hoped that someday I would get to a place where I didn’t need to escape either.” If those sentences don’t cause you to set down your book and think of the impact they have on the character, a prisoner, you’ve got no soul.

What struck me about Dawkins’ work is that he paints prison life as being utterly ordinary, and if not a trifle bit boring. People talk to each other, but it’s about faded hopes and dreams, or lies that they tell to deceive themselves of the fact that they are where they are in life. Characters see themselves as actors in a play, such as one young man who, having been arraigned via jailhouse video, begins to see fictional credits running over his end of the television connected to the courtroom as the hearing ends.

Sometimes, there is a sense of morbid humor that takes place in the proceedings, such as when one prisoner gets caught in a series of outrageous lies, only to be corrected with subtler lies that actually sound as though they could have happened. My favourite story of the book, however, is one of longing. In this piece, a man randomly places phone calls on a jail phone to the outside world, hoping to get a taste of freedom in these bizarre conversations he has. It’s kind of a funny story, but it also has a sense of grief to it as well. That Dawkins can write about two distinct and separate emotions makes him a man who can feel empathy, and who elicits it, too.

Judging this book is a hard task. As far as I know, Braly didn’t kill anyone. Caron didn’t either. So to read a book by someone — no matter how much he claims to regret his actions — who is a stone cold killer is a challenge. Still, you get the sense that by writing fiction, Dawkins is saving a life — even if it might only be just his own. My feelings about the book are indeed divided. On one hand, I enjoyed it thoroughly, and realized that only a story collection that is this passionate about its jailhouse subject matter could only be written by someone who is faced with the prospect of never seeing the outside world again for as long as he lives.

Even though, again, Dawkins doesn’t write about his crime (I don’t think) — only the after effects — it’s still a hard pill to swallow that he murdered someone. I don’t know why I feel any sense of revulsion, because I don’t feel the way I do about Dawkins that I do about Polanski (who I think is a bit of a monster), but I think that’s because A) I don’t know Dawkins and his story as well and B) I feel as though I can relate to Dawkins and the jail/prison experience. It’s important to write about life on the inside because us on the outside will never really know how that experience is (knock on wood). That feeling of being able to relate to someone who killed someone else is a terrible, troubling thing. (Especially as a Christian.)

However, if I’m going to bring up the Christian angle, we all know that grace comes to all of us — no matter what we’ve done. Dawkins has more than received his grace with this book, even if grace is not earned, and The Graybar Hotel is one heck of a ride into the psyche of a very bored man with talent to burn. My feelings about the book are mixed, but if you can somehow distract yourself from the fact that its author is a murderer, this is about the finest book I’ve ever read about the prison experience. It’s too bad about the author’s actions, yes, but if he never did what he did, we’d be never graced with a book this good and important. And that can be a troubling thought at times. How much that trouble is worth to you — the agonizing feeling of thinking of that someone had to die for this book to be written — will tell you whether or not you should read The Graybar Hotel.

Curtis Dawkins’ The Graybar Hotel will be published by Scribner on July 4, 2017.

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