Cohan is adept at relating how a combination of family background and attending one of the most prestigious prep schools in the country helped shape the lives of these four men ... Cohan is a masterful biographer, even if the occasional slip into armchair cultural anthropologist misses the mark. His detailed research spans newspaper accounts and school records to weave a full narrative of privilege and tragedy.
If Cohan sees a common thread [among his subjects' deaths], he does not make it explicit. His flashlight hovers over the usual suspects—entitlement, recklessness, drugs, drinking, parental pressure, parental neglect—then moves on. Perhaps he was wise not to strain for a unified field theory, but a reader may hunger for fewer meandering quotations from friends and more analysis from the author ... The profiles are touching. They are also impressionistic and inconclusive. Because the book has neither endnotes nor a bibliography, it is not always easy to weigh the credibility of conflicting assertions ... I couldn’t help thinking about what story Cohan actually intended to tell.
William D. Cohan’s Four Friends: Promising Lives Cut Short is an engaging, unsettling book. His story of the untimely, violent departures of four of his schoolmates may make the reader feel angry at the sheer waste and carelessness of their deaths. It is also an intensely humane work by a skillful writer of nonfiction narrative who knows how to make you forgive even as he damns ... all of his characters are sympathetic, even if you want to smack their pretty heads.
Mr. Cohan, a Duke alumnus, turns a decidedly less critical eye on his prep-school alma mater, Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., from which he graduated in 1977 ... This unusual focus poses challenges. Were these curtailed lives an anomaly or part of a wider pattern that speaks to Andover’s culture? Mr. Cohan doesn’t say ... He struggles in the book’s diffuse introductory chapters to extract meaning from these premature deaths in the context of Andover’s history and his own experiences there and to pick out an overarching theme ... Mr. Cohan is fascinated by 'how the trajectory of one’s life can change in an instant.' He seems to find it particularly shocking that even the privileged are subject to the terrible vagaries of chance ... The strength of these profiles lies in Mr. Cohan’s lively reporting, which draws on interviews with siblings, family members, friends and former girlfriends to capture the arc of each of these lives ... There are plenty of moving moments in these four absorbing portraits of lives that 'didn’t work out as expected' despite all the advantages of wealth and education. But lacking a coherent point, Four Friends in the end feels as random as the deaths it depicts.
Cohan incorporates personal memories, interviews with friends and family members, news headlines, and police reports, documenting incidents of teenage misbehavior, convoluted family histories, and thwarted expectations ... Readers who enjoy behind-the-scenes details about the lives of the elite, including their foibles, will appreciate these accounts.
... takes four tragedies and unveils the triumphs and tribulations of these people. William Cohan writes a book composed of four deep and beautiful biographies. The protagonists elicit every emotion as the reader shares their travel in life. Four Friends illustrates how what one does while on earth should resonate more than our inevitable end. Captivating read.
Although the author mentions the many advantages all four men enjoyed—easy access to money, higher education, and employment—he keeps our attention on the human side of their lives ... Though portions of the narrative are undeniably moving and poignant, some readers may grow weary of the privilege on display ... An emotionally intense reminder—though not always intentionally so—that even privilege must kneel before fate.
... underwhelming ... there’s little distinction in their stories as Cohan relates them: pot-smoking, wavering grades, and indulgent schoolmasters at Andover; assists from family wealth; no startling successes or noble failures. Cohan’s attempts at pathos fall flat and his theme of youthful promise snuffed out rings hollow, especially in the gossipy Kennedy section, which reveals a profound lack of promise—Kennedy repeated 12th grade—fulfilled by lasting underachievement. The result is an uninvolving study of privileged men felled more by bad judgment than tragic fate.