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.