Curtis Dawkins’ debut collection of short stories, The Graybar Hotel, gives readers an intriguing glimpse into the emotions and tedium of life as a prisoner in America. After being imprisoned for a drug-related homicide in 2005, Dawkins started writing because it gave him hope. Before his drug addiction, Dawkins earned his MFA from Western Michigan University.
Throughout this collection, Dawkins’ stories feature characters that, although imprisoned for serious offenses, are easily empathized with by readers. He does this by focusing on the central themes that vein these stories: loneliness, longing, and claustrophobia. Many of the narrators’ crimes are not discussed in detail. What we see instead are brief snapshots of each character at different periods of their incarceration, punctuated by poignant imagery and metaphor. Dawkins is precise in his word choice, showing each of the characters’ emotions through intimate details rather than cliched language.
In the first story, “County,” the narrator has just arrived in jail. While weaning off a drug addiction, he watches The Price is Right. “Sometimes tears would fill my eyes when a lucky member of the audience would high-five their way through the crowd to stand on the contestant’s row. They were so genuinely happy to be given a chance, and as they looked at Bob brightly lit onstage, it must have seemed like a better life was right there for the taking. Their hearts’ desires were a possibility—and not in some distant future, but right then, at least for the next hour.”
In that same story, an image of a woman tattooed on a cellmate’s chest haunts the narrator. He is ashamed of wanting to reach out and touch her. At one point, a female officer kneels over him and the only questions he wants to ask her are: “Do you like to watch snow come down late at night? When did your parents divorce? What’s your favorite movie? Does the sight of a jet slicing through the cold, thin air break your heart?” Dawkins’ characters ache for interaction, and there is an underlying sadness beneath stories that are otherwise quirky and filled with humorous characters.
Although most of Dawkins’ stories are told in first person, “Daytime Drama” is told in third-person, giving readers the perspective of a mentally ill prisoner, Arthur. Dawkins’ choice in point-of-view gives Arthur’s account reliability. The effect is comparable to that of watching a movie: readers feel like a cellmate, watching Arthur’s bizarre antics and grasp on reality waver as he is put before a judge who attempts to determine his sanity. Simultaneously, Dawkins draws us back into Arthur’s head with sentences that reflect Arthur’s awareness of his own condition: “Was he taking too long, standing there silently? The young man with the CJ teeth looked uncomfortable with the waiting. But Arthur often had problems with time. There were minutes that stretched on like bridges, while whole days swept by like water underneath.”
In “A Human Number,” the narrator places collect calls to random numbers just to speak to someone, anyone, outside of prison. When the operator asks him to record his name, the narrator simply says, “Hey, it’s me.” He talks to whoever will stay on the phone with him, and strains to listen to mundane background noises. “Countless layers of sound make up the world, and I hear it all: voices, vacuuming, traffic through an open window; the hum of washers, dryers, refrigerators, all so slight the sound is barely perceptible.”
In “Engulfed,” Dawkins intertwines two narratives: a relationship with a lying cellmate and the memory of falling in love with a women while posing as a home security salesman. Dawkins’ playful, imaginative details lend a hopeful quality throughout this collection. In “Engulfed,” the narrator is fixated on the woman’s expensive figurines—but not for their worth. He finds himself fascinated by their placid happiness: “I loved the woman, of course, but when I think of her now, I think just as much of the twenty-eight boys and thirty little girls in soothing rows on the wall of her dining room. It even takes a moment for me to remember her name, Mary, but I can picture the fifty-eight little faces with no trouble at all.”
Dawkins uses magical realism in “573543” to illustrate a prisoner’s hope of being freed—if not literally, then figuratively. Again, he weaves two narratives together effortlessly: one narrator succumbing to ketamine addiction, and the other, witnessing his cellmate, Pepper Pie, teaching himself how to slip his body straight through the cell walls. Pepper Pie tells him that if you want something enough, and believe in it, it will happen. Eventually, Pepper Pie escapes. The title of this story is also Dawkins’ prison identification number.
The stories in The Graybar Hotel are undeniably effective—Dawkins’ shrewd use of detail, humor, and dialogue create a multi-faceted collection that elevates his work beyond the genre known as “prison literature.” Dawkins has a compelling voice that has emerged from horrendous circumstances. Although many readers hesitate to support someone who has committed murder, it is important to know that any proceeds from The Graybar Hotel will be placed in an education fund for Dawkins’ three children.
Publisher: Simon and Schuester
Pub date: July 2017
Reviewed by Julia Mucha