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 mercy killing.

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
By Jason Kersten
236 pages, hardcover $24.95.
Harper Collins, 2003.