Author Curtis Dawkins, photo by Lucas Flores Piran

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.

It’s when I mention that I think some of the writers are actually very good that folks get squirrely.

When I tell people about the Review, many of them are quick to praise what they imagine to be a worthy rehabilitative project, the unreadability of which attests to its purity of intention. It’s when I mention that I think some of the writers are actually very good that folks get squirrely.

Dawkins’s book, in places, hews close to the known circumstances of his incarceration, and if you’ve spent time visiting Michigan prisons or talking to Michigan prisoners, you’ll recognize settings and circumstances, names and places. This is deceptive, as are many of the characters. What Dawkins actually does in the book is closer to the mirroring one finds in Philip Roth novels; he reserves the right to veer away from reality at whim. He leaves clues all over the place. “A lie is in the details,” says the narrator of one story, “Engulfed”—a line that you could read as Dawkins’s extremely stripped-down version of a realist poetics. The narrator is a former scam artist (that is, successful fictioneer) who keeps a log of his cellmate’s baldly unconvincing lies:

He punched a female warden twice.
His ex-wife was once a centerfold in Penthouse.
His father was a submarine captain who was lost at sea.
Julia Roberts was a pen pal.
A famous director—he couldn’t remember his name—almost made a movie about him.
He owned four tattoo parlors—which is actually somewhat believable because he did decent tattoos. Still, I kept it on my list. I mean, four?
He used to make heroin from an acre of homegrown poppies and a recipe handed down from Genghis Khan (recently featured on the History Channel).
He died twice and met God both times.

The bad liar of “Engulfed” eventually learns to match the skills of the narrator, who, as we learn through the course of the story, was caught and imprisoned in part because he fell in love with the target of one of his scams: he lied himself into a situation that became true. Like any fiction writer, this scam artist is too good a liar. So is the hero of “Sunshine,” who seems to invent a relationship (or an illness? it’s never clear) simply to add meaning to the boredom of his days in prison. The prisoner who narrates “A Human Number,” one of the book’s standout stories, practices an innocent deception in order to get strangers on the outside to answer his collect phone calls: he gives his name as “hey, it’s me.” The book is, in large part, about stories, about the ways a storyteller inveigles us, and the ways inveterate liars find themselves living within their own fictions. Like his imaginary seller of imaginary security, Dawkins knows that the lie, or the art, is in the details.

The book’s autobiographical feel may be its most successful imposture. It starts in county lockup—where a person just arrested for a violent crime may well start his journey through the prison system. In later stories, the narrator, who seems to be the same figure in some stories and not in others, is shipped from county lockup to state prison (and then from one state prison to another), and the focus of his storytelling moves from his wacky cellmates to himself, culminating with the presentation of his own crime in “Engulfed.” In this way, the book seems to follow a rhythm familiar to anyone who befriends a prisoner or ex-prisoner: a series of disclosures about others that circles and circles around to a gradual admission of the person’s own guilt—or, if the person was not guilty, or if the crime was one for which nobody should see a day in prison (pot smoking, killing an abuser in self-defense), of the bad luck that put them behind bars. The final story imagines a man similar to Dawkins who is released, who comes home, and (a sadly accurate detail) is overwhelmed by the sheer dailiness of life. But the book does not in fact tell Dawkins’s story. We learn in an author’s note, placed after the stories, that his own crime was different—and far uglier—than the one revealed in “Engulfed.” It is the first place in the book where he speaks as man and wrongdoer, and not as artist. It is woodenly written and heavily conventional in its phrasing, a style recognizable to anyone who has attended a parole hearing, as though Dawkins were momentarily renouncing his powers as an artist so as to face his guilt without any defense.

Some readers may feel disappointment that the book is not the personal confession the coverage and marketing have led them to expect. But Dawkins doesn’t owe us a confession—he owes it to his family and to the family of his victim. And it is them that he addresses. Art is not life, and at the end of this book that so often borders on metafiction, Dawkins is at pains to keep them separate.

Art is not life, but we have been forced, lately, to learn things about the lives of some prominent artists that make us blanch, if not vomit.

Art is not life, but we have been forced, lately, to learn things about the lives of some prominent artists that make us blanch, if not vomit. It is hard to talk about Dawkins, or about prison writers in general, without seeming to approach the #MeToo discussion from the underside. Of course the issues are different. A writer who works from home, or from a cell, is different, in terms of his power to do harm to other people, from a staff writer, with a desk in an office, who bullies women coworkers. That staff writer is different from an assigning editor who exposes himself to women reporters. Both are different from a director, a producer, a mogul-slash-rapist. And an artist who confronts and admits his own evil is different from one who opens moral questions only to flick them away, à la late-period Woody Allen. Who you are, away from the work, may or may not matter, but who you are in the work matters a great deal. I object as a human to Norman Mailer stabbing his wife, but I object as a reader to the way An American Dream occasionally reads like an argument for stabbing your wife.

Even if Dawkins were inclined to kill again—which, from all available evidence, he isn’t—you could buy his book without facilitating such a deed. He, God bless him, isn’t going anywhere. Far greater is the likelihood that, like so many lifers, he will try to harm himself. In a time when we are often told to ration our sympathy, to save it for victims or the “deserving” (whatever that means), it can feel like more than weakness to say that the misery of Dawkins’s circumstances haunts me—it can feel like admitting a transgression of my own. But we love realist literature in part because it is such an efficient aid in the reconstruction of minds otherwise closed to us. To refuse to take seriously the subjectivity of a killer is to draw lines that seem to call the very project of imaginative literature into question. And it seems worth noting that, on publishing The Graybar Hotel, Dawkins arranged for every dollar of his royalties to be paid into an account that will be put toward his children’s education.

Still, the existence of the book scandalizes some readers. Such is the conclusion we must draw, at least, from the lawsuit recently filed by the State of Michigan against Dawkins and his publishers, which seeks to reclaim his book’s royalties to recoup the cost of Dawkins’s incarceration. It should be noted that Michigan, like all other states, appropriates prisoners’ labor at sub-sub-minimum-wage levels for a variety of tasks to ends that nobody any longer seriously pretends are rehabilitative; sometimes in conditions such that, last year at Michigan’s Kinross Correctional Facility, inmates risked death to go on strike. It is just possible that Dawkins is earning his keep. Suits similar to the one filed by Michigan against Dawkins have been levied against imprisoned writers before—most famously, perhaps, in the case of a group of women writers at Connecticut’s York Prison taught and subsequently anthologized by the novelist Wally Lamb. After considerable heartache and expense, that suit was defeated. That Michigan’s government is risking the possibility of such a defeat, and using taxpayer money to do it, might raise one or two questions, especially when one considers that a major Michigan city has been without clean water for, at this writing, well over 1,300 days. One can only marvel at the intensity of the state’s devotion to protecting the readers of The Graybar Hotel from the possibility of moral complicity.

Whatever else one might say about it, the suit against Dawkins makes clear that the debate over reading and celebrating the art of people who have done serious harm to others is not always, not only, about the fear of inadvertently enabling wrongdoers. To prevent an artist, or any person, from doing evil is one thing. To prevent him from doing good suggests a far deeper and stranger set of fears.

Once or twice, in my time working with prison artists, I have sat in on a parole hearing for one of them. It is a harrowing experience, and one that, incidentally, gives the lie to the notion that a person who sympathizes with a wrongdoer must overlook the suffering of that person’s victims. What happens in fact is that you walk out of these things scandalized, gutted for humanity in general, and hoping not only for the release of the person you came to support, but for the release of us all from the entire sordid human circus of mutual harm and shortsighted vengeance. But I’ve noticed an interesting reaction whenever any of us mentions one of our writers’ literary activities: a kind of snort from the victim’s side of the room. It is a highly expressive snort. It says, not merely, so he can write, so what but something more final, more primal: he shouldn’t be able to make beauty. He doesn’t deserve art.

Indeed, he doesn’t. It is in the nature of beauty, as the theologian David Bentley Hart has rightly observed, to exist first and always as gift: as precisely what can’t be earned. The capacity to give this gift, it turns out, bears the same relationship to our apparent desserts as does the capacity to receive it: none at all. Curtis Dawkins may not deserve The Graybar Hotel. But neither do we. 

Published in the June 1, 2018 issue: View Contents

Phil Christman is a lecturer at the University of Michigan and the author of Midwest Futures.

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