The Graybar Hotel

Curtis Dawkins

Scribner, 2017

Agent: Sandra Dijkstra

In this stunning, gritty debut collection, Curtis Dawkins, an MFA graduate and convicted murderer serving life without parole, takes us inside life in the prison system 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 life in prison through the eyes of his narrators and their cellmates. Dawkins delves into the idiosyncrasies, tedium, and desperation of long-term incarceration—he describes not a picture of endless brutality but, rather, a multifaceted exploration of men who struggle to keep their souls alive in almost impossible circumstances.

In "A Human Number," a man spends his days collect-calling strangers just to hear the sounds of the outside world. In "573543,"a traveling salesman descends into addiction alongside his team's winning streak in the prison baseball league. In "Leche Quemada," Clyde 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 living in impossible circumstances. Dawkins brings 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.


• An Indie Next selection for July 2017 
•Selected by Vulture as a Must Read for July
•Selected by Literary Hub  as a Crime Must-Read for July
•Selected by as one of the 17 must-read books of Summer 2017
•Selected by Oprah's Book Club as one of the Best Beach Reads of August 2017

"Scattered throughout are tender moments of self-revelation, nostalgia, and loss....The Graybar Hotel is finally uplifting....In 2000, Curtis Dawkins earned a master of fine arts degree from Western Michigan University; in 2005, he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for felony murder. Between those two statements a human tragedy seems to have exploded, as the testament of these toughly courageous, unflinching, and unapologetic stories make clear."
Joyce Carol Oates for Oprah Magazine

“Besides the prison setting, the constant that binds these stories together is the atrocious tedium and isolation of an imprisoned existence—the monotony of being locked away from free society in the name of punishment….[The Graybar Hotel] is well-written and worth reading for Dawkins’ craft and insight, but it’s also an occasion to consider an industry that has little to do with rehabilitation, and that makes it nearly impossible for its participants to recuperate their lives.”
Chicago Tribune

“[Dawkins’s] prison stories are insightful and well written, and they ring true.”
Houston Chronicle

"Dawkins brings us real news and art, employing strange conceits—inmates collect-calling strangers, or preparing for an intramural softball game, or acquiring the ability to disappear—to expose prison's most powerful weapon against minds and bodies: not violence, but boredom."

The Graybar Hotel by Curtis Dawkins: the best book of short stories by an MFA grad imprisoned for life you’ll read this year—or probably ever.” 
New York Magazine

“Stories about the subtle indignities and wandering imaginations that shape prison life, written by an inmate. [Dawkins is] unquestionably a keen observer of the psychological tools inmates use to sustain themselves behind bars. A well-turned and surprising addition to prison literature.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred)

“In stories that range from high-definition realism to wistful surrealism, Dawkins illuminates the nuances of prison life from the fragility of inmate friendships to the constant assault of memories and regrets, sensual deprivation, the intricate web of lies and power plays, and the many shades of stoicism. Sorrowful, hard-hitting, and compassionate, these finely formed, quietly devastating stories are told with unusual and magnetizing authority: four years after earning an MFA in fiction writing, Dawkins began serving a life sentence without parole.”
Booklist (starred)

"Reading The Graybar Hotel is as close as most people would ever want to get to going to prison. Dawkins’s characters are as indelible as the prison tattoos he describes with wry precision, from Depakote Mo to Doo-Wop to Jonnie Mae. The clichés about prison life—cigarettes as currency, strained race relations, a lot of television watching, and occasional violence—are deftly skirted here as Dawkins plays with the claustrophobia of his characters’ condition by moving in and out of their lives before and during incarceration. Dawkins, who is serving life without parole for murder, is a formidable new talent."

"Dawkins writes empathetic, thoughtful pieces about those who long for the outside....From inside his prison cell, MFA graduate and convicted murderer Curtis Dawkins writes dead-on stories of prisoners just doing their time."
Shelf Awareness

"This first collection is a powerful and closely observed depiction of life behind bars....What's freshest and most surprising here is Dawkins's absolute focus on the humanity of those behind bars—of how inmates survive, or don't, as they struggle to maintain self and sanity in the face of the tedium, deprivation, and loneliness of incarceration. A fully realized debut."
Library Journal (starred)

"The 14 stories in this debut collection give a fascinating dimension to the lives of prisoners and the world that they inhabit....Dawkins's tales impress with the authenticity of real-life experience, and his prose is rich in metaphor and imagery....His often wryly amusing observations about the routines of prison life make him a striking guide for navigating the terrain."
Publisher's Weekly

“In ‘Engulfed,’ a riveting story near the end of his powerful debut collection, Curtis Dawkins writes, ‘Once you become a number, all you are is the words you use.  If your words aren’t real, then neither are you.’ It’s a serious, demanding standard that Dawkins sets for his writing and every story in this book not only rises to the challenge, but succeeds in realizing and honoring what Dawkins desires his words to be. The words and the writer are real indeed, as is the unforgettable experience of reading this book.”
Stuart Dybek

"In The Graybar Hotel, Curtis Dawkins brings the contemporary short story at its best into the shadowy world of America at its worst, behind the bars of its overpopulated and ubiquitous prisons. These brilliantly crafted stories – with their formal inventiveness, savory dialogue, meticulous detail, and succinctly compassionate portraiture – are as much a manual in how to write original short fiction as in how to think about prisons. Still, anyone who wants to understand America’s correctional system through the clarifying lens of great fiction will now have to know three indispensable books: Malcolm Braly’s On the Yard, for the social novel; Chester Himes’ Yesterday Will Make You Cry, for the bildungsroman; and now Curtis Dawkins’ The Graybar Hotel, for the short story."
Jaimy Gordon, author of the National Book Award-winning novel Lord of Misrule

“Curtis Dawkins draws from his direct experience to paint a picture of jailhouse life in all its grimness. He conveys the repulsive mixture of boredom, stupidity, filthiness, meanness and chronic anxiety that is the prisoner's lot. The inmates are dysfunctional, the structure that houses them authoritarian. This book will scare you straight--or should. But within their cages, Dawkins' prisoners dream--of criminal schemes, drugs, women--and an American world outside the walls. Their avid fantasies burn with a furious light against the bleak institutional background, exploding with ingenuity, pathos and rebellion. In many cases, these outsiders are, like Dawkins himself, artists.”
Atticus Lish, author of Preparation for the Next Life

The Graybar Hotel is unlike any other short story collection I’ve ever read.  Dawkins’ cast of characters are forever longing for escape – escape from prison, escape from their past, escape from freedom, even.  And when the escape is successful, when one reality is traded for another, Dawkins’ characters find themselves lost, even pining for what they had in the first place.  The Graybar Hotel is not a 'prison-book'.  It is a mirror, held up to our culture of incarceration.  It is a testament, a testimony that the people inside prison are as much Americans, as much citizens as their guards, parole officers, and wardens, that there is no outside, that prisons are as much America as pubs, playgrounds, or parks.  There is a current of electricity running through this book, a shocking voltage of truth.  What an authentic and rare book The Graybar Hotel is.”
Nickolas Butler, internationally bestselling author of Shotgun Lovesongs, Beneath the Bonfire, and The Hearts of Men

“The stories in The Graybar Hotel are astonishing, clever and true. It’s the best collection I’ve read in a long, long time.”
Roddy Doyle, author of The Barrytown Trilogy and the Booker Prize-winning Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha