Journal of the Dead: A Story of Friendship and Murder in the New Mexico Desert

Kersten, Jason

Published by Harper, 2003
ISBN 10: 0060184701 / ISBN 13: 9780060184704
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I killed and buried my best friend today. . . . He turned to me and begged that I put a knife through his chest. I did, and a second time when he wouldn't die. . . . God and his family and mine, please forgive me.

In the summer of 1999, best friends Raffi Kodikian and David Coughlin headed off on an American rite of passage -- a cross-country trek in the spirit of Jack Kerouac's On the Road. The two stopped for a simple overnight sleep-out trip in Carlsbad Caverns National Park, carrying barely adequate camping supplies, only three pint bottles of water, and a journal to record their experiences. After they awoke the next morning in Rattlesnake Can-yon, however, the friends' adventure quickly took a turn for the worse when they were unable to find their way back out of the canyon. The journal they left behind chronicles their increasingly desperate search for help, as each new path ended in frustration, and buzzards began to circle overhead.

Four days after they entered the canyon, help arrived. Rescuers found Kodikian dehydrated but alive. When he was asked where Coughlin was he pointed to a pile of stones: "Over there . . . I killed him," he said.

David Coughlin had been stabbed twice in the heart. Had there been a darker motive than mercy? And how could anyone, under any circumstances, kill his best friend?

Armed with the journal Kodikian and Coughlin carried into Rattlesnake Canyon, Jason Kersten re-creates in riveting detail those fateful days that led to the killing in an infamously unforgiving wilderness. Through in-depth interviews and profiles, he presents the key players in Kodikian's case and examines the ongoing controversy of an instance of murder that captured national headlines. Jason Kersten's Journal of the Dead is at once a true-crime mystery set in the wild, an exploration in moral ambiguity, and a compas-sionate portrait of a friendship's tragic end.

Review:

"The man of knowledge," Nietzsche is said to have remarked, "must not only be able to love his enemies; he must also be able to hate his friends." Indeed, it's a thirst for existential knowledge and adventure that unexpectedly pushes two bosom friends beyond the brink of disaster--and ultimately calls into question the very meaning of friendship--in Journal of the Dead. Jacob Kersten's riveting account—expanding on an article originally published in Maxim--reconstructs the true-crime story of a baffling murder that took place one desperate morning in 1999 in New Mexico's Rattlesnake Canyon. Raffi Kodikian and David Coughlin, having lost their way after embarking on a casual, short-term hike in the desert, find themselves out of hope, on the verge of fatal dehydration. According to a journal kept by Kodikian, they decide on a mutual suicide pact to spare each other excruciating pain before an inevitable death. Yet Kodikian survives after stabbing his friend. Soon afterward, he is rescued by rangers and subsequently charged with the murder of his best friend.

Kersten's source material has a disturbingly fascinating quality from the start, but his accomplishment in shaping it into a multi-layered narrative is admirable and artful. Kersten pulls out all the stops in depicting not just the back story of these two friends and their circle but also the deeper focus of the history of the desert, its allure and attendant attractions--in particular the Carlsbad Caverns--along with intriguing excursions on such topics as the biology of dehydration, the mechanics of topographical maps, and the legal niceties of the "intoxication defense." His choice of background details enhances our sense of the extreme situation in which these unfortunate individuals are trapped and helps retard our easy judgment of Kodikian’s choice. Kersten is especially good at restoring an element of suspense--the outcome of the desert tragedy is replayed earlier in his book--in the way he allows the ensuing courtroom drama to unfold. Yet however much he attempts to maintain an aura of ambiguity around Kodikian's motives, Kersten can't quite efface a stance of exculpatory compassion. --Thomas May

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Title: Journal of the Dead: A Story of Friendship ...
Publisher: Harper
Publication Date: 2003
Binding: Hardcover
Book Condition: Used: Good

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