The Graybar Hotel (NetGalley)
Simon & Schuster
release date: July 4, 2017
I saw the cover of Graybar Hotel on NetGalley, where I request reader copies and was intrigued–but passed it over thinking the stories might be a too edgy. But here’s what initially caught my interest: author Curtis Dawkins is “an MFA graduate and convicted murderer serving life without parole”. How many authors do you know who fit that bill? Then when my bookish friend Denice raved about it, you’d better believe I went back to the site straightaway and put in my request. And I’m not sorry I did.
Graybar Hotel is a series of (sometimes) interrelated stories set in Michigan prisons told by narrators who are intelligent, articulate, and self-aware. The character in “A Human Number” calls random phone numbers just to hear the noises of life on the outside–traffic, TV in the background, a vacuum cleaner running. The character–we can call him Hey it’s me because that’s the name he inserts in the jail’s Tel Link recording–talks to KittyKat, an older man weighing the pros and cons of knee surgery, and Revelation, a woman who reads long passages from the book of Revelation aloud to him. In “Daytime Drama” the story turns on Arthur, a prisoner who wears a blanket superhero style around his neck, and requests a lobotomy when the psychologist comes to do a competency screening. “I’d like it out. You probably don’t understand the perils of a torturous brain,” he tries to reason with the doctor. Then there’s naive Mickey (he wore a clown mask to rob a bank and his mother found the mask and turned him in) who makes a run for it across the prison yard on a misty day (suicide by prison guard), and Peanut who fakes seizures to get out of his cell, but isn’t faking a pregnancy. (That Peanut, a trans male, got through intake with no one recognizing his gender, is mind-boggling.)
There’s more than one kind of prison, though. Dawkins also gives us the stories of the men’s lives before prison where poverty, unemployment, and drug addiction are as constraining as the bars of a cell.
Writer Curtis Dawkins has published online while incarcerated and the pieces about Jack Kevorkian, his time in solitary confinement, and ten years of cellmates are well worth reading. I imagine his story will be all over the media (here’s a piece from The New York Times) after it’s published tomorrow, and rightly so. Dawkins’ stories in Graybar Hotel are compelling and original, the writing fresh–and not to be missed.