The open roads and big spaces of the West have always called young men and women from the cities and suburbs of the East. So it was with David Coughlin and Raffi Kodikian, both in their 20s, who, in 1999, headed from Boston to California. Inspired by Jack Kerouac, the nascent literati took along a journal to document their voyage.
They never made it to California. While
hiking at Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico, the two got
lost and dehydrated. Park rangers found the pair a few days later,
only a few miles from the road. Kodikian was still alive, but
Coughlin had been stabbed in the chest, the victim of an apparent
In their misadventure, Jason Kersten, a
senior editor at Maxim magazine, found an
intriguing story for his first book, The Journal of the
Dead: A Story of Friendship and Murder in the New Mexico Desert.
Reminiscent of Jon Krakauer’s Into the
Wild, the author uses the pair’s journal, court
records and interviews to delve into the circumstances that
magnified the errors of greenhorn outdoorsmen into violent death.
Alas, Kersten is no Krakauer. The Journal of the
Dead is an interesting read, but it keeps us emotionally
distanced, both from the travelers and the desert environment that
witnessed Coughlin’s demise. If there was a motive for the
death other than mercy, Kersten didn’t find it. And if it was
a mercy killing — what is it like to stab your best friend in
the heart with a dull pocketknife?
And what of the
namesake journal? We hardly get a peek inside, despite the fact
that Kodikian is a budding travel writer. This is too bad, because
the most illuminating part of the book is Kodikian’s
courtroom testimony. Perhaps Kersten himself was too distanced: not
enough time in the desert, dehydrated and pushed to the edge.
Journal of the Dead
236 pages, hardcover $24.95.
Journal of the Dead
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