Stories about the subtle indignities and wandering imaginations that shape prison life, written by an inmate.
Debut author Dawkins is an MFA graduate serving a life-without-parole term in a Michigan prison for a 2004 murder. Whatever one makes of the circumstances behind his incarceration, he’s unquestionably a keen observer of the psychological tools inmates use to sustain themselves behind bars. “Every emotion is multiplied,” writes the narrator of “Sunshine,” who suspects a cellmate’s girlfriend lied about her cancer diagnosis to dump him. “Your mind becomes a very clear prism, into which every feeling enters.” To cope, some play at mental illness (“Daytime Drama”), some obsess over their dreams (“The Boy Who Dreamed Too Much”), and some—as in the especially supple “Engulfed”—become serial liars to the point that the lying becomes a personality trait. And the narrator discovers there are consequences to challenging that persona: “Once you become a number, all you are is the words you use. If your words aren’t real, then neither are you.” Dawkins isn’t much interested in the clichéd tales of prison violence, overcrowding, sexual assault, and drug abuse, though such themes occasionally surface. Nor does he dwell much on the reasons for his protagonists’ imprisonment—the narrator of “573543” was caught buying large amounts of ketamine, but his chief flaw is ignorance. For Dawkins, the true defining element of prison life is tedium: too much time to watch TV, to call random numbers collect in hopes of a connection, to jury-rig tattoo guns. And time, above all, to indulge in reveries about life on the outside. Or, barring that, turn prison life strange, like the prisoner who seems to have developed the capacity to make himself disappear. Magical realism? Wishful thinking? Dawkins leave the answer purposefully, poignantly vague.
A well-turned and surprising addition to prison literature.