Review: The Graybar Hotel, Curtis Dawkins

In this blog post, writer Nick Moss reviews ‘The Graybar Hotel’ by Curtis Dawkins. Dawkins is an MFA graduate and prisoner serving life without parole. In the book, he takes inside the worlds of prison and prisoners, offering a window into prison life through the eyes of his narrators and their cellmates. 

“Curtis Dawkins is a life sentence prisoner in the United States. He writes without any attempt to glamorise or romanticise his circumstances. His day to day life is spent within the Michigan prison system and so that is what he writes about. He has an MFA in Creative Writing , but there is no sense here of Dawkins seeing himself as being in any way apart from the other prisoners he lives alongside. His writings carry a sense of someone struggling to make the words carry the truth of the experiences he has. As a result, there is a dry, caustic humour which runs through the stories in the book. This is not an attempt to look objectively at the prison system. Dawkins writes from within, and is true to, the everyday of prison life.

Dawkins gets that the mundanity and tedium of prison life is its fundamental – that life is filled primarily by talking bullshit and listening to more-or-less amusing lies and watching episodes of the Price Is Right (or Countdown more often, in the UK):

‘Normally I’m not a very good conversationalist, but the past two months in jail had made clear to me I had nothing better to do. So if someone talked to me , I had resolved to take him up on it. At least until he got boring, or until the lies became too much…’

There are echoes of Charles Bukowski and Raymond Carver in Dawkin’s writings, but the resonances are due to his combination of craft and wit, not to any contrived attempt at dirty realism. The realism here is sometimes cruel, sometimes banal, but it is never a put-on. The tale of Tom’s faked suicide – in which a particularly annoying cell mate plans to get out of county jail by staging a hanging – is a case in point, with the cell mates hesitating a few seconds before stepping in to hold his legs and call the guards. In that hesitation , and the cruelty and kindness, the bitterness and comedy, that is covered by its span, is prison life in its essence.

Dawkins catches this repeatedly in his tales – the prisoner dialling random numbers so as to talk to someone on the outside; Arthur and his cape and his request for a lobotomy; Micky, the bank robber who dressed as a clown, and who wanders off into the fog .

Something that only cons and ex-cons really know is the way in which people come and go into your life when you’re inside – one minute you’re sharing a cell, and maybe sharing your hopes and dream and nightmares – the next they’re gone and you never see them again. This happens again and again in Dawkin’s tales, and it’s what makes them so true to life in prison, the sense of things always shifting, never settling, even if life is at the same time as boring as hell, interrupted by moments of piss-yourself laughter.

Dawkins doesn’t dwell on autobiography. We get fragments -of his life and the lives of the people who fill his stories, but we don’t get the full picture. We get to hear of Jonnie Rae, who shares his ketamine drifting; we get some of the lowdown on Pepper Pie, who is planning to walk through walls, but the tales are written in the knowledge that ‘most prisoners have spent their formative years having their trust continually compromised, so to trust another person with information or emotions, is a sign of weakness. They don’t want to seem weak, so they offer up very little. I never learned the full story of why he was here.’ We get the macabre incidental details of prison life:

‘Some of the prisoners here wear the numbers of the dead. According to the Department of Corrections, the prisoner has been “released by death” and they just reuse the number.’

Not all the stories focus on prison life. ‘Swans,’ which focuses indeed on swans, but also weed, suicide and future hope, is  wonderfully surreal and heartbreaking. Even at their most bleak, though, Dawkins’ stories are funny. He reminds us that ‘When fucked up people end up inside they can be whoever they want. A crackhead becomes a high class pimp. A tax evader was a master forger and poker champ.’ So we get the story of Robert and his 152 lies, and his revenge on the con who tries to put him right. And we get Clyde’s homecoming and his resigned reaction to what it means to be free.

Dawkins say that ‘if your words aren’t real then neither are you’ – but his stories work because they don’t treat ‘realness’ as an excuse for cliché. His stories are real because they are about people – in all their fucked-up glory and stupidity, and they capture the particularity of prison life, but they could equally well take place on the outside. Their brilliance lies in the fact that they are about people who are in prison, not about ‘prisoners.’

By Nick Moss




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