The Graybar Hotel

Michigan felon Curtis Dawkins's debut story collection, The Graybar Hotel, sweats the small stuff of prison life. A Western Michigan University MFA graduate serving life for a drug-fueled 2005 Kalamazoo murder, Dawkins chronicles the occasionally colorful, often despondent and mostly tedious lives of contemporary inmates. There is little whining here or fruitless claims of innocence. Dawkins's narrators and their cellmates are focused on getting through the day--the TV shows, books, surreptitious smokes, walks around the yard, collect phone calls to strangers and crude jailhouse tattoos ("like trying to sew fine stitches with a knitting needle").

Behind the bars of the Ionia County Correctional Facility, the prisoners carry nicknames like Pepper Pie and Crash. They dream of mowing their yards with the family dog at their heels. They feign suicide or do a few months in the Hole for "malingering with intent." Jailhouse lawyers, they file dead-end appeals and lament their inadequate public defenders. The Graybar Hotel doesn't linger over the usual political hot buttons of mass incarceration, violence, corrupt guards and drug abuse. Instead, Dawkins writes empathetic, thoughtful pieces about those who long for the outside. As the narrator of "In the Day Room with Stinky" concludes: "I'm going to take a shower then wait. I'm going to drink strong coffee and wait for good things to happen." There's no "dancin' to the jailhouse rock" going on in these stories--just a lot of waiting and hoping. --Bruce Jacobs founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

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