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The Graybar Hotel by Curtis Dawkins

Published by Scribner on July 4, 2017

The Graybar Hotel is a collection of stories about men in jail or prison. Most are told in the first person, although not always by the same narrator. They generally progress from the Kalamazoo Jail to a Michigan prison, although “The Boy Who Dreams Too Much” takes place in a transitional facility where prisoners are transferred after leaving jail as they await an assignment to a prison. “Swans,” which tells of a friendship that the narrator had before he was incarcerated, takes place in a reformatory, although it is narrated by an adult who is eight years into a life sentence. The last story, “Leche Quemada,” is told in the third person and focuses on a man who, having just been released from prison, soon realizes that a part of his mind will always live behind bars.

The tone is set in “County,” the collection’s first story. The narrator’s new cellmate in the Kalamazoo Jail describes being hit by a Cadillac, the conversation being one more way to pass time in days that are filled with emptiness, just like the fake suicide attempt that hastens the new inmate’s desired path back to prison.

Some of the stories deal with the theme of alienation, an inmate’s desire to connect in some way with the outside world. The narrator of “The Human Number” makes random collect calls from jail, connecting with people so lonely or bored that they are willing to chat with an inmate they don’t know. The narrator of “The World Out There” makes up a story about a girl who is sitting in the stands of a baseball game he’s watching on television.

Many of the stories are slices of life behind bars. “Sunshine” is a vignette about an inmate whose sister may or may not have cancer. “In the Dayroom with Stinky” relates a series of conversations between inmates. “Daytime Drama” focuses on an inmate who seems to be having mental health issues. “Depakote” talks about cigarettes, prison scams, and the perils of owing debts to other prisoners. A goose gets caught in the prison’s razor wire in “Brother Goose.”

A couple of stories discuss the lives that inmates led before they entered prison. “Six Pictures of a Fire at Night” spotlights Catfish, who cleaned up suicides and other dead bodies for a living and who may or may not have killed his wife. But “Engulfed” suggests that the inmates who talk about their outside lives are probably lying, and that the lies are an essential means for inmates to feel less bad about themselves, to construct a more productive past than the one they lived.

The most poignant story, “573543,” mixes memories of the narrator’s time as an addict with the arbitrariness of prison guards who are eager to dehumanize inmates in ways that drugs never manage to accomplish.

This is a strong collection and a valuable contribution to the genre of prison literature. Incarceration is challenging and dehumanizing, but Curtis Dawkins makes the reader remember that the majority of prisoners are ordinary people who, like most of us, are trying to make the best of our circumstances.


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