Warning: Don’t be misled by Curtis Dawkins’s droll, affably low-key voice in these 14 deftly told fictional tales narrated from within the Michigan prison system. Though The Graybar Hotel (Scribner) is his first work, Dawkins is a wickedly skilled storyteller who may lull you into thinking that life behind bars isn’t so bad after all, with books to read and TV to watch and the opportunity for inmates to indulge in fantasies about who they were before, or what scheme they might undertake after they get out. Then suddenly everything changes, and the boredom of prison shifts to horror, the emotional equivalent of a hammer blow to the head:
“They’re going to shoot him,” Ray said.
“Maybe not,” I said, “maybe they’ll—”
And we heard it: the single crack and the faint echoes fading through the dense, wet air.
Scattered throughout are tender moments of self-revelation, nostalgia, and loss. In the poignant “A Human Number,” an incarcerated man is so lonely, he telephones strangers just to hear someone speak. In the suspenseful concluding story, “Leche Quemada,” a prisoner is paroled after 12 years and returns to his wife in the suburbs; at once we sense how her compulsive routine will test his resolve. Here as elsewhere, the precarious equilibrium between yearning, reality, and mental illness is at stake.
Despite its subject matter, The Graybar Hotel is finally uplifting. While there is pity and sympathy, there is little self-pity; the narrators, who resemble one another like brothers, never insist they are innocent or being treated unjustly; they accept their fates as both inevitable and self-inflicted.
In 2000, Curtis Dawkins earned a master of fine arts degree from Western Michigan University; in 2005, he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for felony murder. Between those two statements a human tragedy seems to have exploded, as the testament of these toughly courageous, unflinching, and unapologetic stories makes clear.