Ben Wolf, a resident of the small town of Trout, Idaho, has big plans for his senior year in high school until a blood test taken as part of a routine sports physical reveals that he has a deadly disease. The doctor tells him that his chances of survival are questionable even with treatment, but that without aggressive action he can expect to live no more than a year. Although the news is shocking, Ben has always known somehow that he would die young. His mother has a mental disorder, and Ben predicts that the added burden of his own illness will "break the fragile symmetry of [his family members'] lives." As he is eighteen, Ben invokes his right to keep his medical condition confidential, and, refusing treatment, resolves to take whatever time he has left and live life as normally and fully as possible.
Despite his small stature, Ben has always dreamed of playing football. With nothing to lose, he goes out for varsity, the team on which his brother Cody, eleven and a half months younger and a senior as well, is the star. Coach Banks is dubious when Ben first comes out for the team but is quickly won over by his tenacity and heart. Ben turns out to be an effective football player, "flattening guys half again [his] size" and playing with the intensity of one for whom there is no tomorrow.
With the same intrepid approach, Ben begins to pursue Dallas Suzuki, a tall, comely volleyball player who has long been "the focus of [his] lust and [his] undying love." To his surprise, Dallas invites Ben to meet her at a local hangout, and although he is initially disappointed to learn that she just wants to interview him for the school newspaper, he is astonished when, at the end of their meeting, she asks him to homecoming. Ben, elated, simultaneously experiences a deep sense of grief as it occurs to him that he is "gonna feel bad anytime [he] get[s] anything good, 'cause [he will have] to give it up" so soon. Dallas and Ben attend a Legion Hall dance on the heels of a football victory in which Ben, with Cody, plays a pivotal part. When Ben takes Dallas home afterwards, she invites him in and, at her instigation, they have sex. She then sends him off "like a stray cat," leaving Ben wondering if he and Dallas are "closer . . . or further away" and unsure of the implications if they are closer because in a year he will be gone.
Since learning about his impending death, Ben has been visited in his dreams by an enigmatic character named Hey-soos, who, as his name seems to indicate, is sort of a Christ figure, but not exactly. Hey-soos has the uncanny propensity of appearing in Ben's dreams when things are most complicated. He will not tell Ben what is or is not going to happen or if something is right or wrong; instead of giving him answers, he usually "brings [Ben] around to finding [his] own."
Educationally, Ben embarks on a quest for "truth," reading "subversive" books such as Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me and Haley's The Autobiography of Malcolm X. He challenges his current events teacher, Mr. Lambeer, an opinionated man who derides any viewpoint that does not agree with his own. Ben chooses to attempt to get a street named after Malcolm X as his class project, a formidable undertaking in a small town with a black population of zero. Mr. Lambeer balks at allowing Ben to pursue this topic, calling it "frivolous," but Ben is insistent. In the absence of his teacher's cooperation, Ben discusses Haley's book with Rudy McCoy, the reclusive "town drunk" whom he has befriended and with whom he has begun to establish a relationship based largely on their common interest in Malcolm X. At Ben's urging, Rudy has been making a real effort to stay sober. To Ben's surprise, when Rudy talks about the issues addressed in the autobiography, he "sounds like a college professor." Unlike Mr. Lambeer, Rudy encourages Ben to question what he is told because that is the way he will learn.
The homecoming game is a critical one, and Ben and Cody, again working in unison, execute a brilliant pass for a touchdown,...
(The entire section is 1661 words.)