#BookReview: THE GRAYBAR HOTEL by Curtis Dawkins

In this stunning debut collection, Curtis Dawkins, an MFA graduate and convicted murderer serving life without parole, takes us inside the worlds of prison and prisoners with stories that dazzle with their humor and insight, even as they describe a harsh and barren existence.

In Curtis Dawkins’s first short story collection, he offers a window into prison life through the eyes of his narrators and their cellmates. Dawkins reveals the idiosyncrasies, tedium, and desperation of long-term incarceration—he describes men who struggle to keep their souls alive despite the challenges they face.

In “A Human Number,” a man spends his days collect-calling strangers just to hear the sounds of the outside world. In “573543,” an inmate recalls his descent into addiction as his prison softball team gears up for an annual tournament against another unit. In “Leche Quemada,” an inmate is released and finds freedom more complex and baffling then he expected. Dawkins’s stories are funny and sad, filled with unforgettable detail—the barter system based on calligraphy-ink tattoos, handmade cards, and cigarettes; a single dandelion smuggled in from the rec yard; candy made from powdered milk, water, sugar, and hot sauce. His characters are nuanced and sympathetic, despite their obvious flaws.

The Graybar Hotel tells moving, human stories about men enduring impossible circumstances. Dawkins takes readers beyond the cells into characters’ pasts and memories and desires, into the unusual bonds that form during incarceration and the strained relationships with family members on the outside. He’s an extraordinary writer with a knack for metaphor, and this is a powerful compilation of stories that gives voice to the experience of perhaps the most overlooked members of our society.

Published: July 4, 2017

Amazon / Amazon UK / Amazon CA


My Review

This book first caught my attention because it’s written by a convicted killer, serving life in prison. And so the stories hold a bit of voyeuristic intrigue, allowing a glimpse behind those fences and gray walls.

Curtis Dawkins is a gifted writer. There is beauty in his words, despite the darkness of the pictures he paints for us. I was prepared for a visit to a violent world. What I didn’t expect was Dawkins’ powerful portrayal of the utter boredom and what it does to the mind. We also see the inability to escape the chatter of people with whom you’re forced to live in close contact, despite the fact that you’d probably never choose to hang out with them if given the choice.

Once you become a number, all you are is the words you use. If your words aren’t real, then neither are you. – Engulfed

These stories could be fiction, fact, or a mixture of both. They all have a strong component of realism, along with a surprising amount of depth. Curtis Dawkins shows us the humanity within the cold, uncertain world where we lock away our problems.

*I receive an advance ebook from the publisher, via NetGalley, in exchange for my honest review.*


Thanks for reading.