Summary and book reviews of The Graybar Hotel by Curtis Dawkins

The Graybar Hotel

Stories

by Curtis Dawkins

The Graybar Hotel by Curtis Dawkins
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  • Published:
    Jul 2017, 224 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte

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About this Book

Book Summary

In this stunning debut collection, Curtis Dawkins, an MFA graduate and convicted murderer serving life without parole, takes us inside the worlds of prison and prisoners with stories that dazzle with their humor and insight, even as they describe a harsh and barren existence.

In Curtis Dawkins's first short story collection, he offers a window into prison life through the eyes of his narrators and their cellmates. Dawkins reveals the idiosyncrasies, tedium, and desperation of long-term incarceration - he describes men who struggle to keep their souls alive despite the challenges they face.

In "A Human Number," a man spends his days collect-calling strangers just to hear the sounds of the outside world. In "573543," an inmate recalls his descent into addiction as his prison softball team gears up for an annual tournament against another unit. In "Leche Quemada," an inmate is released and finds freedom more complex and baffling then he expected. Dawkins's stories are funny and sad, filled with unforgettable detail - the barter system based on calligraphy-ink tattoos, handmade cards, and cigarettes; a single dandelion smuggled in from the rec yard; candy made from powdered milk, water, sugar, and hot sauce. His characters are nuanced and sympathetic, despite their obvious flaws.

The Graybar Hotel tells moving, human stories about men enduring impossible circumstances. Dawkins takes readers beyond the cells into characters' pasts and memories and desires, into the unusual bonds that form during incarceration and the strained relationships with family members on the outside. He's an extraordinary writer with a knack for metaphor, and this is a powerful compilation of stories that gives voice to the experience of perhaps the most overlooked members of our society.

COUNTY

Italian Tom was a saucier until a Cadillac doing sixty hit him and knocked the recipes out of his head. He had a faint line like an old smooth weld across the length of his forehead and the dark dots of suture scars. He wasn't five minutes in our cell before he knocked on the scar with his knuckles, making a dull metallic sound like he'd flicked an open can of soda with his finger. "Go ahead, try it," he said, taking a step closer.

"I heard it. I believe you," I said from my mat on the floor. Tom looked around our cell for another taker, but Domino and Ricky Brown were both sleeping. 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, or until The Price Is Right came on. Since it was only 10:00 a.m. I said, "How long ago did it happen?"

"About fifteen years....

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Despite the dark material, The Graybar Hotel never spirals into the depths of despair. The sharp writing and engaging narrators elevate the collection into an intelligent and eagle-eyed look at a part of the world most of us hope to never see.   (Reviewed by Poornima Apte).

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Media Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Dawkins's tales impress with the authenticity of real-life experience, and his prose is rich in metaphor and imagery - as when he describes one prisoner's arraignment as "his courtroom wedding to the state of Michigan, till death do you part," and how the fogged-up windows of a prison transport van "effectively erased us" from the outside world. His often wryly amusing observations about the routines of prison life make him a striking guide for navigating the terrain.

Library Journal

Starred Review. What's freshest and most surprising here is Dawkins's absolute focus on the humanity of those behind bars - of how inmates survive, or don't, as they struggle to maintain self and sanity in the face of the tedium, deprivation, and loneliness of incarceration. A fully realized debut

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. A well-turned and surprising addition to prison literature.

Author Blurb Nickolas Butler, internationally bestselling author of Shotgun Lovesongs, Beneath the Bonfire, and The Hearts of Men
There is a current of electricity running through this book, a shocking voltage of truth. What an authentic and rare book The Graybar Hotel is.

Author Blurb Roddy Doyle, author of The Barrytown Trilogy and the Booker Prize-winning Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha
The stories in The Graybar Hotel are astonishing, clever and true. It's the best collection I've read in a long, long time.

Author Blurb Jaimy Gordon, author of the National Book Award-winning novel Lord of Misrule
These brilliantly crafted stories – with their formal inventiveness, savory dialogue, meticulous detail, and succinctly compassionate portraiture – are as much a manual in how to write original short fiction as in how to think about prisons. Still, anyone who wants to understand America's correctional system through the clarifying lens of great fiction will now have to know three indispensable books: Malcolm Braly's On the Yard, for the social novel; Chester Himes' Yesterday Will Make You Cry, for the bildungsroman; and now Curtis Dawkins' The Graybar Hotel, for the short story.

Author Blurb Atticus Lish, author of Preparation for the Next Life
Curtis Dawkins draws from his direct experience to paint a picture of jailhouse life in all its grimness. He conveys the repulsive mixture of boredom, stupidity, filthiness, meanness and chronic anxiety that is the prisoner's lot. The inmates are dysfunctional, the structure that houses them authoritarian. This book will scare you straight - or should.

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Beyond the Book

The Rise of the Prison-Industrial Complex

PrisonerThe Graybar Hotel makes one reflect on the incarceration rates in the United States and the reason for its explosion over recent decades.

Readers might remember the George H. W. Bush vs. then Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis presidential campaign. It has been argued that two commercials truly sealed Dukakis's fate: The Willie Horton ad and the Revolving Door clip. Borrowing heavily from the "fear factor" handbook, the campaign implied that Dukakis was soft on crime, giving murderers like Willie Horton, "weekend passes" to leave prison and commit more of them. America, the Bush campaign argued, couldn't afford somebody with such lenient stances on criminals. Politicians have sometimes adopted such approaches, thereby stoking ...

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