In an utterly different context, a reader might recognize Curtis Dawkins’s debut collection The Graybar Hotel as a highly accomplished twenty-first century take on the genre of absurdism. Like characters out of Robert Walser or Witold Gombrowicz, the people in Dawkins’s stories live in unquestioned subjection to the inexplicable rhythms of a mysterious institution. As in Beckett, they spend a lot of time waiting, filling the air with bored or nervous babble as they wait. The mood of the stories—gentle humor bisected by tragedy or violence—reminds one of Denis Johnson, while the quietly unsparing narrative voice recalls Camus. Most of the book is set in prison, and yet it feels less imaginatively constrained than most new fiction.
The Graybar Hotel will have to wait many years for such readings, if it ever receives them. Dawkins, like his characters, is a prisoner—he is serving a life sentence for the unprovoked murder of a man named Thomas Bowman in 2004, which he committed under the influence of crack and other substances. We tend to impose a confessional frame on all writing by prisoners—even in cases where a writer has far less than Dawkins to confess—and so many reviewers have treated the book as a thinly disguised autobiography. The New York Times Book Review set the tone for the coverage with a piece titled “An Addict, a Confessed Killer and Now a Debut Author,” which successfully avoids mentioning Dawkins’s book until the second paragraph. Most of the national coverage followed suit. A highly sympathetic story in the Chicago Tribune still insists on describing him, in the headline, as a “convicted murderer” first, writer second. “Curtis Dawkins is that rare sort with an MFA and a life sentence without parole,” reports the Houston Chronicle, employing that gee-whiz tone more usually reserved for authors who also fly planes or know how to juggle.
I do not mean to call out the writers of these pieces. After all, it was their careful manipulation of readers’ lurid interest in violent criminality that probably ensured Graybar Hotel would achieve any readership at all—it being that proverbially unmarketable thing, a terrific book of short stories. And I am as interested in the question of Dawkins’s imprisonment, and what it means, as most people, though perhaps for different reasons. For the last half-decade, I have been the editor of a literary magazine run by students at the University of Michigan and by local volunteers, unimaginatively titled the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing, which publishes only work by Michigan prisoners. (When I learned of Dawkins’s book, his name was new to me, and I was seized by the horrible thought that we might have read and rejected prior submissions by him—an editorial screwup on par with the publisher who told Melville to get rid of the whale. To my relief, Dawkins, reached by letter, explained that he’d simply been holding his manuscript close to the chest.) I have published, without apology, murderers and other violent criminals, people whose deeds are less defensible even than Dawkins’s. I don’t generally look into the circumstances of the writers’ crimes, though I often find out by accident. I am interested in publishing good work, period, as it arises from a community of people who lack many of the usual avenues to publication.