Before reading Curtis Dawkins’ short story collection The Graybar Hotel, you should decide how you’re going to come to terms with Dawkins’ crime of murder that put him in prison for life without parole. Decide if you are comfortable with the book’s profits going to an “education fund” for Dawkins’ children.
In the early morning of Oct. 31, 2004, Dawkins shot Thomas Bowman to death during a drug-fueled crime spree in a neighborhood of Kalamazoo, Michigan. In his book, the only explicit reference to the murder is “The night I killed a man was a horrible ordeal, especially for his family, my family” in the book’s acknowledgments. This detached and somewhat unapologetic sentiment is followed by “you learn within twenty-four hours of hearing a prison door slam shut, either you will die regretting the past or you’ll learn to live in the present.” He is correct. Pages of melodramatic regret would not change anything.
In an undated article—his negative review of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil—Dawkins is more directly apologetic, saying, “I shot a man dead who had no business being shot by a drugged-out freak in a strange Halloween get-up.” He should have re-used that line. Bowman’s family is not happy that Dawkins got a book deal, or that he is allowed to write at all. Bowman was a stranger to Dawkins, standing on his stoop smoking a post-midnight cigarette when Dawkins demanded money. He refused, and Dawkins shot him.
The Graybar Hotel collects 14 stories about different aspects of the prison experience, from initial reception to a prisoner on parole. As with most fiction drawn from direct experience, the reader might try to read between the lines to see where Dawkins drew from real life. Those expecting the unhinged violence and rapes of Oz, or the deeper relationships of Orange is the New Black, might be disappointed. Dawkins captures the quieter, bleaker drudgery of having nothing left but time.
The only time he specifically references his crime is in the book’s acknowledgements, but the days following his own arrest are alluded to in the story “Daytime Drama.” It centers on the intake of Arthur, a slightly unhinged man entering the judicial system. Arthur’s crime is never identified, but he is told by a judge on a video monitor that the charges mean he faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison. When the brief hearing concludes, Arthur pipes up, “You’re not going to bang your gavel?” A summation of someone disconnected from their situation.
Arthur is equally befuddled as he relates to fellow prisoners and a jailhouse psychologist who is brusque and unsympathetic when Arthur tries to chat up the psychologist’s assistant:
“Don’t direct your questions to her, and don’t answer my questions with a question of your own. I’m here to look out for your safety. And frankly, your attitude smacks of suicidal tendencies. We can put you on C-Wing, you know. But I’ve heard you’re a sleeper, so I doubt you’d like that… Do you know why you’re here?”
“Because of what I did.”
“That’s good. That’s pretty much all I need. We’ll talk more later, Arthur. Maybe.”
The institution is professional —it’s barely personal.
Arthur is occasionally referred to as “Superman” and a fellow prisoner looks at him and says, “We got a celebrity over here. No shit, that whackjob we got is on TV.”
Arthur knew what they wanted: for him to take his blanket and tie the corners in front of his throat… Arthur would stand, wrap his cape around him with a dramatic sweep, and wait for the drama to unfold. This is what they expect. This is what they need. And who was he to disappoint?
This description of Arthur, who seems to have been arrested wearing some sort of costume, resonates with Dawkins’ real-life crime and arrest; depending on the account, he was dressed either in a gangster outfit or as a leprechaun. Exactly the type of just-crazy-enough to get some local news attention.
Of course, the short stories are all fiction and it shouldn’t matter whether these details are drawn from real life. But there’s no question that books like this carry an expectation of “authenticity.” For us to give Dawkins out attention, we need to feel his tour of the prison experience is “true” so we can voyeuristically say to ourselves that some version of these events really happened.
If this collection were not written by a prisoner, I’d probably have been moderately disappointed. It’s not salacious or violent or even especially controversial. It’s not a manifesto that rails against the judicial system or exposes unfair treatment. Dawkins avoids race entirely. His characters rarely identify their crimes, and even the relationships with the guards are testily inconvenient but rarely violent:
“You guys know you can’t have anything under your mattress. Move the book,” he said.
“It’s my bunkie’s Bible. I don’t think I should move it.”
“I’m not asking you to move it. I’m giving you a direct order.”
“You’re going to write me a ticket if I don’t move someone else’s property? Is that a major or a minor ticket?”
“Move the Bible or give me your ID, jackass.”
I just wanted him out—him and his whole ratlike vibe—so I pulled the book from under the mattress and Strickland closed the door.
It’s a pathetic exchange with very little dignity on either side.
As someone once embedded with US soldiers in Iraq, and as an Army veteran myself, I shared and understood Dawkins’ perspective of the slow passage of time, the minor rebellions against authority, and the space filled with inane conversations. But I wanted more immersion in the experiences I didn’t share. At times, I found these stories a little too relatable. But I suppose that is the point. Prison life—at least as shown in these stories—is not the horrible, kill-or-be-killed hellscape of constant rape and murder that our culture has trained us to expect. We want Biblical vengeance, but we might have to be satisfied with decades of boredom.
Stories about Dawkins’ literary success sometimes mention the idea that the book might lead to an early release from prison—but Dawkins has never claimed that as his intention or hope. The book probably hurts his chances. The last literary “success” from prison was Jack Henry Abbott, who Norman Mailer successfully helped get early release on the strength of his writing and eventual book In the Belly of the Beast, which included passages like:
You can feel his life trembling through the knife in your hand. It almost overcomes you, the gentleness at the feeling at the center of the coarse act of murder. You’ve pumped the knife in several times without even being aware of it.
Abbott had stabbed a fellow prisoner to death, so it’s not a theoretical description. It would be hard to imagine the writer of that passage gaining an advantage for parole today. Just six weeks after his 1981 parole, Abbott stabbed another man to death (he killed himself in prison in 2002).
The fatal consequences of Mailer’s intervention stained his reputation, and in the era of Twitter it is literally impossible to imagine any literary figure of Mailer’s equal taking up Dawkins’ cause. It is equally difficult to imagine any parole board willing to take that same risk.
And why should they? Dawkins’ writing strength is not even prison-earned—his anger isn’t created and fueled by the system, which at least Abbott could claim. In 2000, four years before his crime, Dawkins graduated from Western Michigan with a Masters of Fine Arts in Fiction—possibly the most privileged degree a university can offer. In prison, Dawkins’ skills have been deployed to one of the last places an MFA graduate would be expected to encounter. It’s certainly no advantage, but he entered prison well-trained to reflect every detail and nuance of a world so happily foreign to most of us. This collection supposedly earned him a “low six-figure” book deal, the brass ring for every MFA student battling it out with enthusiastic colleagues and low-level rivalries. The stakes around those seminar tables are amazingly low, and now Dawkins is in a place where stakes are so very, very high. Yet his work feels so safe.
That’s why I’m left deeply ambivalent about the collection. With all those skills, with all that training, with the moral weight of his horrible decisions and the ghost of Thomas Bowman’s stolen life surely looming over every word he wrote, Dawkins has provided serviceable and interesting fiction. The world is quite full of serviceable and interesting fiction.
Nathan S. Webster reported from Iraq several times as a freelance photojournalist, and his work was published in dozens of newspapers nationwide. He writes on a variety of topics.