Book Review – Poking Lions

So I went and picked up this book.  Poking Lions.  Written by Keith Quincy.  It ended up being a suspense thriller that challenged my own sense of empathy while partially enraging me as to how we let certain lives go the way they do.

The book continuously sucks you in, with you not knowing what comes next or with you not knowing how far you have come.  It’s also based on a real person…which is somewhat unimaginable considering the storyline.

The story centers on two main characters.  Two characters that are quite far apart in life experiences, mental makeups, and moral principles.  Or maybe not.

It’s the early 1980’s.  Eddie Dooley is a dying prisoner, a former Vietnam vet whose body is ravaged by effects of Agent Orange.  He’s also a quick learner, a mathematical genius, a loner by nature. He does possess a cold heart, but one that shows flashes of warmth…especially for older men who take him under their wing.  Dooley survived a horribly dysfunctional Brooklyn childhood devoid of parental love but one in which he committed unspeakable acts.  Dr. William Melon is a reasonably idealistic prison psychiatrist, who, while somewhat jaded at life, is looking to re-establish some sense of self after a bad divorce.  It is his responsibility to evaluate and council Dooley in some manner in which the prisoner could perhaps be paroled for the last few months of his life.

Melon was not fully ready for the story of Dooley’s life, just as the reader will not be.

The author makes it hard to cheer for Dooley despite his history of life having abused him in various ways.  I felt a sense of sympathy at times…a feeling as to “what could have been”, but this was limited because his own brilliance made me realize that he had more control over his life than one might initially think.

The book covers his childhood in Flatbush as he was of Irish and Italian stock.  Both of his parents were absolute failures.  The father provided no moral direction or sense of responsibility and the mother was a physically and mentally abusive monster.  His one sense of security and pride revolved around a red scooter, an image that continually brought him comfort and pain throughout his life.  Numerous reform schools fail to reform.

Thus, he turned to a life a crime where he spent his first years – still a teen – as an apprentice of sorts to what ended up being beloved mentor.  But crimes lead to more crimes which leads to what could have been, literally, a death sentence.  His only way out was the army.  Why not?  Vietnam was raging and the crazier the better.

But Melon couldn’t get Eddie to talk about Vietnam.  He wasn’t quite ready to divulge that part of his life – a sign that he has a conscience and sense of how he wants to be perceived.  So Eddie first talks of his post-Vietnam escapades.

Melon, the psychiatrist, was doing his best not to get sucked into Dooley’s life story.  Or at least the drama of it.  Melon, was, after all, a professional.  But it’s hard to be a professional when your patient has stories such as those of Eddie Dooley.  For much of the book, Melon stays on the safe side, walking up to that line but never crossing it.  Each of them look at Dooley’s situation where Dooley describes himself as being “homicidal, but not psychotic”.  Melon starts out doubtful of this assertion but eventually comes around and understands that Dooley knows his own status.

But now we see Eddie in his life of crime throughout the country – New Orleans, California, Washington state…often inexplicably finding a mentor – even for a short time – that simultaneously adds to his growth as a human and as a criminal.

Then, finally, Eddie is ready to talk of Vietnam.  He wasn’t a regular soldier assigned to a regular unit.  At least not at first.  No.  His role there was the type of role we only here that certain chosen people are specially trained for.  The types of roles that are never discussed.  Even by those that are in those roles – that is, if they survive them.  Or are allowed to survive them.

Let’s just say that with the training he then received and with his subsequent carrying out of assigned missions, Eddie’s lot in life was sealed.  No mentor nor red scooter could save him.

Throughout the book, it’s difficult to tell whether Eddie wants to or should be released to spend his final days.  He no longer has a family to speak of.  His mentors are long gone.  But by now, Melon has made a decision.  Eddie should be released so he can spend those last days in peace.

Their final sessions together involve intense debates about the concept of being evil.  Evil enough to kill for the sake of killing or perhaps convenience…even if one possesses a conscience.  These sessions lead to what we end up seeing as deliberate chosen pathways.  Pathways to protect, pathways to foil, pathways that define how each will spend the rest of their days.  And as we will learn with an ironic twist, only one was correct in their description of how evil is within us.

Quincy creates a great character in Dooley.  Dooley’s description of his Vietnam experiences are harrowing, but very believable.  You can clearly see how he ended up living the life he led.

Quincy also develops what looks like a strong, workable relationship between Dooley and Melon.  They keep correct boundaries while Melon interprets Dooley effectively for the readers.  There’s not much to go on with Melon outside of his psychiatric office.  That’s fine…the story isn’t really about him.  But Quincy seemed to struggle in developing some of that.

At times I wanted more from the peripheral characters and for others, I felt that they weren’t necessary. Regardless, the mentoring factor does play a role in keeping what was likely a sense of sanity for Dooley.

l highly recommend the book if you want to read something that will challenge you on what the horrors are that one person can take.  And give out.



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