How you feel about Curtis Dawkins’ debut short story collection will depend on two things, one major and one minor. First, obviously, it’s a short story collection. If you don’t do those, you can move on (and we don’t care if you notice us hissing at you like dysfunctional cats). That’s the minor. The major? Well, Curtis Dawkins just so happens to be a person who is in prison serving out his time for committing murder.
He wrote these stories whilst in the clink, is what we’re saying. He is, as far as we know, still in the clink. We know that there are some people – understandably, perhaps – who find the idea of a convicted murderer being granted a platform just too intolerable to bear. At least one of the surviving relatives of the person Dawkins murdered is on record as saying they don’t think this book should be allowed to exist. That is a perfectly legitimate point of view. We don’t entirely prescribe to it, though (and we say that knowing that maybe just maybe there will be people who would say, “Ah but you’d feel differently if Dawkins had murdered someone you were close to…”).
Cervantes served time in prison. For one. Since then, in a great many different art forms, many artists of all stripes have served time for crimes of varying levels of seriousness. Examples of writers include Sartre, Gramsci, Dostoyevsky, Wilde, Solzhenitsyn, Bertrand Russell, Jack London, Chester Himes, Edward Bunker and more recently people like Mohamedou Ould Slahi. It’s an illustrious list. But more than that, a work of art should be distinct from its creator. A work of art can be judged on its own merits, lives or dies on whether it’s any good or not. In our eyes, The Graybar Hotel is very, very good.
Over the course of 14 stories, Dawkins for the most part embraces that most writerly dictum and writes of what he knows: prison. They follow a loose arc, from county (where you’re placed to await trial) to larger correctional facilities where inmates serve longer stretches of time. Some of these stories bring prison vividly and authentically to life in a prose style that recalls Fante or Bukowski. At the same time, however, there are stories here that flirt with the fantastical – which, in the midst of hard authenticity, is all the stranger, has all the more impact.
Dawkins is great with detail, you’re there, in the room when he speaks of “the guards who walk past every seven minutes, like the steady sweep of a lighthouse beam” (as he does in ‘County’), you’re there handcuffed alongside when they arrive at a new prison and find “the enormity of the wall was enough to shut us all up” (‘The Boy Who Dreamed Too Much’). You get a sense of the day time drama, of suicide and scams, of the pain of life going on outside of prison without you.
“When you’re separated from the people you know and love, every emotion is multiplied. Your mind becomes a very clear prism, into which every feeling enters, then becomes seven or eight different shades. We were all responsible for being there, of course – none of us were innocent. But that only makes you feel worse when you’re the one in jail.”
When life intrudes, it comes with an incredible sense of yearning, powerfully illustrating that Wordsworthian dictum, emotion recollected, although not perhaps in tranquillity. You see it in ‘ten foot strands of red, raw meat twisted into links every six inches hung in the window’ ‘of a narrow brick building on Orchard Street in Chinatown’, in the longing for a taste of coffee, in the “sweet earthy smell of burning tobacco [which] caused me to think of home and all the pain I’d caused.” You hear it in “the steady hum of five hundred men talking.”
You also get a powerful sense of Dawkins’ wit, for instance in the character of Arnold (‘who wore a cape in the county jail’ in the story ‘Daytime Drama’), in the character of Stinky (in the story ‘In the Dayroom with Stinky’) or in specific, dry remarks. Here he is ruminating on a cell buddy who has been sent to the hospital (from ‘A Human Number’):
“I was jealous that Peanut was said to be Malingering with Intent. It really sounded like something to be.”
Here he is with a buddy, examining new prison wear in a way that is positively Brautigan-like:
“…we looked at our feet as if we had a couple of fish there. Neither of us had worn shoes in a very long time. They felt like an old, favorite song.”
And there is the fantastical – hinted, in the shape of a coin that could prevent ‘disappointment and future regret’, and actual, in the form of a prisoner who can mystically disappear from a cell using the power of his mind. It can surprise you in a sly aside (as one prisoner wonders how much toothpaste it would take to attach you to the bunk above).
The Graybar Hotel is a deeply human book, a book that looks at the world it creates with a steady unflinching eye. It feels like the kind of book that would, once upon a time, have appeared within the Rebel Inc line, dug out from a long dead writer who obviously took wrong turns on the way to being a writer. The difference here is that Dawkins is not long dead and this isn’t a dusty old classic spruced up with a new cover. This is a writer writing now. We hope there’s more to come.
Any Cop?: Dawkins has a great voice and The Graybar Hotel is a great read. We recommend.