"Almost every one of the 14 short stories in the collection seems to have originated from something Dawkins experienced or witnessed in jail or prison, and almost every one reflects with devastating compassion on the guilt and regrets of the criminals inside ... [The Graybar Hotel is] well-written and worth reading for Dawkins' craft and insight, but it's also an occasion to consider an industry that has little to do with rehabilitation, and that makes it nearly impossible for its participants to recuperate their lives."
“Dawkins is a wickedly skilled storyteller . . . Despite its subject matter, The Graybar Hotel is ultimately uplifting . . . toughly courageous, unflinching, and unapologetic.”
—O, the Oprah Magazine
"[Dawkins's] prison stories are insightful and well written, and they ring true. Dawkins possesses the acquired wisdom of a man who's been there, done that and, unfortunately, is staying there."
“The Graybar Hotel by Curtis Dawkins: the best book of short stories by an MFA grad imprisoned for life you’ll read this year—or probably ever.”
—New York Magazine
"[A] book that is remarkable for its modesty, realism and humanity ... Dawkins has a genius for bringing characters to life and making mundane situations compelling, if only because they feel so real ... [Dawkins] has produced a book that is not only moving and genuine, but genuinely important; one that, without resorting to shock tactics, powerfully conveys the perverse inhumanity of mass incarceration."
“Dawkins can write. His prose skillfully carries the reader directly into the setting of all of his stories: the jailhouse or prison. He captures this unnatural and uniquely terrible world with precision and clarity. Most readers haven't spent time incarcerated; all will come away from this superb collection feeling as if they have.”
—New York Journal of Books
"Dawkins brings us real news and art, employing strange conceits—inmates collect-calling strangers, or preparing for an intramural softball game, or acquiring the ability to disappear—to expose prison's most powerful weapon against minds and bodies: not violence, but boredom."
"Reading The Graybar Hotel is as close as most people would ever want to get to going to prison. Dawkins’s characters are as indelible as the prison tattoos he describes with wry precision, from Depakote Mo to Doo-Wop to Jonnie Mae. The clichés about prison life—cigarettes as currency, strained race relations, a lot of television watching, and occasional violence—are deftly skirted here as Dawkins plays with the claustrophobia of his characters’ condition by moving in and out of their lives before and during incarceration. Dawkins, who is serving life without parole for murder, is a formidable new talent."
"This short story collection explores the life of prisoners with both intoxicating and unparalleled insight and surprising humor."
"[A] powerful collection of stories about how inmates survive and struggle in prison."
—San Diego Magazine
"A Western Michigan University MFA graduate serving life for a drug-fueled 2005 Kalamazoo murder, Dawkins chronicles the occasionally colorful, often despondent and mostly tedious lives of contemporary inmates ... Dawkins writes empathetic, thoughtful pieces about those who long for the outside."
"A well-turned and surprising addition to prison literature."
—Kirkus Reviews, 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.”
—Library Journal, starred review
"In stories that range from high-definition realism to wistful surrealism, Dawkins illuminates the nuances of prison life from the fragility of inmate friendships to the constant assault of memories and regrets, sensual deprivation, the intricate web of lies and power plays, and the many shades of stoicism. Sorrowful, hard-hitting, and compassionate, these finely formed, quietly devastating stories are told with unusual and magnetizing authority."
—Booklist, starred review
"Dawkins’s tales impress with the authenticity of real-life experience, and his prose is rich in metaphor and imagery ... His often wryly amusing observations about the routines of prison life make him a striking guide for navigating the terrain."
"In The Graybar Hotel, Curtis Dawkins brings the contemporary short story at its best into the shadowy world of America at its worst, behind the bars of its overpopulated and ubiquitous prisons. 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."
—Jaimy Gordon, author of the National Book Award-winning novel Lord of Misrule
“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. But within their cages, Dawkins' prisoners dream—of criminal schemes, drugs, women—and an American world outside the walls. Their avid fantasies burn with a furious light against the bleak institutional background, exploding with ingenuity, pathos and rebellion. In many cases, these outsiders are, like Dawkins himself, artists.
—Atticus Lish, author of Preparation for the Next Life
“The Graybar Hotel is unlike any other short story collection I’ve ever read. Dawkins’ cast of characters are forever longing for escape—escape from prison, escape from their past, escape from freedom, even. And when the escape is successful, when one reality is traded for another, Dawkins’ characters find themselves lost, even pining for what they had in the first place. The Graybar Hotel is not a “prison-book.” It is a mirror, held up to our culture of incarceration. It is a testament, a testimony that the people inside prison are as much Americans, as much citizens as their guards, parole officers, and wardens, that there is no outside, that prisons are as much America as pubs, playgrounds, or parks. 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.”
—Nickolas Butler, internationally bestselling author of Shotgun Lovesongs, Beneath the Bonfire, and The Hearts of Men
“The stories in The Graybar Hotel are astonishing, clever and true. It’s the best collection I’ve read in a long, long time.”
—Roddy Doyle, author of The Barrytown Trilogy and the Booker Prize-winning Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha
Written by an inmate currently serving life in prison, this first collection is a powerful and closely observed depiction of life behind bars. While the tales involve numerous characters in a range of situations, there is an overall structure to the collection as it moves from stories of county jail to state prison and finally to release. In "A Human Number," an inmate phones random numbers just to hear strangers talk about life on the outside. In "The Boy Who Dreamed Too Much," an inmate who copes by telling others of his nightly dreams "walks toward the wall" after his fellow prisoners let him know they've heard enough. "573543" features an inmate who asserts himself in prison and thus finds his true identity. The book's final tale, "Leche Quemada," explores the disorientation that comes with freedom as a prisoner goes home to his wife. VERDICT 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. [See Prepub Alert, 2/13/17.]—Lawrence Rungren, Andover, MA
Stories about the subtle indignities and wandering imaginations that shape prison life, written by an inmate.Debut author Dawkins is an MFA graduate serving a life-without-parole term in a Michigan prison for a 2004 murder. Whatever one makes of the circumstances behind his incarceration, he's unquestionably a keen observer of the psychological tools inmates use to sustain themselves behind bars. "Every emotion is multiplied," writes the narrator of "Sunshine," who suspects a cellmate's girlfriend lied about her cancer diagnosis to dump him. "Your mind becomes a very clear prism, into which every feeling enters." To cope, some play at mental illness ("Daytime Drama"), some obsess over their dreams ("The Boy Who Dreamed Too Much"), and some—as in the especially supple "Engulfed"—become serial liars to the point that the lying becomes a personality trait. And the narrator discovers there are consequences to challenging that persona: "Once you become a number, all you are is the words you use. If your words aren't real, then neither are you." Dawkins isn't much interested in the clichéd tales of prison violence, overcrowding, sexual assault, and drug abuse, though such themes occasionally surface. Nor does he dwell much on the reasons for his protagonists' imprisonment—the narrator of "573543" was caught buying large amounts of ketamine, but his chief flaw is ignorance. For Dawkins, the true defining element of prison life is tedium: too much time to watch TV, to call random numbers collect in hopes of a connection, to jury-rig tattoo guns. And time, above all, to indulge in reveries about life on the outside. Or, barring that, turn prison life strange, like the prisoner who seems to have developed the capacity to make himself disappear. Magical realism? Wishful thinking? Dawkins leave the answer purposefully, poignantly vague. A well-turned and surprising addition to prison literature.