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Review: Curtis Dawkins’ “The Graybar Hotel”

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Controversial books and controversial writers have been around ever since there have been books and writers. When I used to teach American literature, what was I expected to say about Ezra Pound? How was I supposed to regard Jack Abbott, Norman Mailer’s protégé, who after Mailer helped him publish a book committed a murder? What about Mailer himself who no doubt would have ended up in prison if his wife had pressed charges after he tried to kill her? Add to the list of controversy Curtis Dawkins, “incarcerated since 2004 for a drug-related homicide, for which he’s serving life without parole.” That quotation concludes Dawkins brief author’s biography on the jacket of The Graybar Hotel, after identifying the writer as receiving “an MFA in fiction writing from Western Michigan University in 2000.”

These are not easy questions to resolve.

A recent New York Times article about Dawkins begins: “One October night in 2004, Curtis Dawkins smoked crack, dressed up for Halloween in a gangster costume and terrorized a household, killing one man and taking another hostage in a rampage that drew 24 patrol officers and a six-member SWAT team.” Late in the article, written by Alexander Alter, the writer observes, “It’s surprising how little contemporary fiction has emerged from American prisons. More than two million people in the United States are incarcerated, and many prisons have writing programs. PEN runs a writing program that reaches more than 20,000 prisoners. But very little contemporary prison literature is released by major publishing houses, which seldom consider writers who are not represented by agents and which may be wary of the logistical and ethical pitfalls of working with convicts.”

Dawkins’ case is somewhat different. He had already earned his MFA by the time he committed the murder. He was married and had three young children. Supposedly, everything was going well for him, but then he snapped, though the information about him also says that he was an alcoholic and an addict. Whatever, this is the sad story of more lives being lost to addiction, both the victim and the murderer and the families of both. Still, it’s difficult to read The Graybar Hotel and ignore all the background relating to the author. If you read the book, you will have to ask yourself the same questions I asked before deciding to give the book, a collection of stories, a try.

I confess to the revelations Dawkins makes about prison life: boredom, lies, deceit, humiliation, small acts of charity and remorse, brief moments of pleasure. And although a few of the sections of the book are plotted like actual short stories, many of them are more appropriately described as vignettes, incidents of prison life, often quite revealing though not especially distinguished. For example, a story titled “A Human Number,” describes an act we are led to believe is common by inmates: blindly dialing telephone numbers (like robocalls) and hoping that the party at the other end will agree to accept the collect charges and speak to the caller. Apparently, there are numerous people who agree, perhaps as lonely as the prisoner is for human contact, for someone to talk to. If you’ve been successful making that call, you want to remember the phone number so you can call back again. This is all pretty depressing no matter how you interpret the activity.

Or consider this powerful opening to a story called “Sunshine”: “George had come back from the visiting room where his girlfriend, Sunshine, just told him she had cancer. He couldn’t touch her or hold her, of course, through the phone, through the glass. He said he almost tried to smash through the thick, shatterproof pane, but he figured he’d be tackled long before he ever got to comfort her. He looked around at us with the anger still in his eyes, as if expecting praise for his restraint from trying something that would have been impossible to begin with.”

What Dawkins captures so depressingly in his stories is the sense of claustrophobia, of limited or non-existent options that prison confirms on its inmates. The troubled lives of the other inmates he describes (the numerous bunkmates he lists who come and go with amazing frequency) become a catalog of social misfits with self-inflicted wounds that resulted in their incarceration in the first place. He provides them with colorful names that capture their features and obsessions: Pepper Pie, Stinky, Crasher, Catfish, Doo-Wop, Slim—plus their small acts of protest to break out of the patterns of everyday confinement. Dawkins reports that one bunkmate with an actual given name, Robert, told him 152 lies in the thirty days they were together, beginning with the following: “He punched a female warden twice.” “His ex-wife was once a centerfold in Penthouse.” “His father was a submarine captain who was lost at sea.” “Geronimo was a relative (also: Timothy McVeigh, Babe Ruth, Abraham Lincoln, and many more, usually whoever was on the History Channel recently).” “Julia Roberts was a pen pal.”

The list goes on, and finally Dawkins observes, “”Lies are a drug here; prisoners are addicts and as any addict sinks deeper and deeper into their sickness, they seek out people who are worse off than them so they don’t feel so bad about themselves.” It’s finally other inmates and their tragic mistakes, their excuses, and their subterfuge for survival, that move us in The Graybar Hotel, a great title by the way.

There but for the accidents of fate go the rest of us.

Curtis Dawkins: The Graybar Hotel
Scribner, 210 pp., $26

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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