Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 997
Ben Wolf is a normal young man who finds himself in an extraordinary situation. Given only a year to live, he decides to forgo treatment that may or may not extend his time a little bit, choosing instead to maintain the quality of his life for as long as he is able and to live to the fullest extent within that time frame. Although he is admittedly scared, he makes his decision with amazing presence of mind and philosophical acceptance; he "always knew at some core level he would be moving on early." "Hardwired" to want to "save the unsavable," beginning with his bipolar mother and ending with the "town drunk" Rudy McCoy, Ben is unusually sensitive to the needs of others, and, in the beginning, part of his reason for keeping his condition a secret is because he does not want to burden them. As events unfold, however, Ben realizes that by being a "control freak" and denying others the opportunity "to deal with the truth in a straightforward manner," he is being disrespectful, unfair, and, in the final analysis, selfish. Ben is an immature character at first in that his understanding of the effects of his actions on others is severely limited. Although he can be quite abrasive in challenging the established world view, as he demonstrates in his dealings with Mr. Lambeer, Ben is sincere in his quest for truth. Because he is aware of his own fallibility, he is able to change as his understanding grows. Because of his determination to risk everything in the time he has left, Ben is able to experience things that "people live their whole lives without feeling." He achieves a delirious level of stardom on the football field, and, with Dallas Suzuki, discovers a love so precious that the thought of losing it fills him with "such deep longing that [he] thinks [he] might disappear." Without ever intending to, he hurts Dallas deeply by remaining silent about his illness even as they fall in love, but he accepts the consequences of his mistake without rancor when, unable to get over her feelings of betrayal, she breaks off their relationship upon learning the truth. In the end, Ben dies, secure in the knowledge that although "it took [him] awhile to understand," he did his best, risked it all, and made his peace with himself and the universe.
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Dallas Suzuki is the classy, alluring, Japanese and Caucasian "monster on the volleyball court" who is the object of Ben's desire. Ben admits up front that she is "way out of [his] league." Because he cannot imagine that she will ever actually fall for him, he does not even consider that she might get hurt when he pursues her. Unbeknown to him, however, Dallas too is a damaged character, deeply wounded by an uncle who molested her and impregnated her before she was even thirteen. Dallas, who is forced to pretend that the child she bore is her little brother, is a strong individual who at the same time is eminently vulnerable. She hides her woundedness beneath a brash and forbidding exterior and holds others at arm's length; it is an undisputed "rumor" that "Dallas doesn't bring people home." For her to trust Ben enough to invite him into her house, have sex with him, and eventually share with him her deepest secrets is testimony to the esteem in which she holds him and the fact that she is falling in love. Because she has risked so much in trusting Ben, his betrayal in concealing the truth is especially devastating, and she cannot find the courage within herself to continue their relationship when he finally reveals that he is going to die. Dallas, like Ben, is a character in flux, lacking in full maturity but growing through experience. Though she has been violated, she is not "ruined" because she still believes in herself and, recognizing the destructiveness of the lies she has been forced to live, she resolves to tell the truth about her son's parentage and take control of her own life when she goes off to college.
In contrast to Dallas Suzuki, there is little hope for Rudy McCoy. Like Dallas, Rudy was also molested as a child, and in his early twenties he made the horrifying discovery that he harbored an attraction for young boys. Despite seeking the help of God and the Catholic Church, Rudy became a child molester himself, and the child he victimized took his own life. Rudy is an especially tragic figure; imprisoned by fear of his unnatural inclinations and consumed by remorse and self-loathing, he retreats from life, anesthetizing himself with alcohol and drugs. Ben's friendship allows Rudy to achieve a semblance of normalcy again for a while, but it also brings back the demons that have haunted him for so long. As it turns out, Ben comes into Rudy's life too late; even though Rudy owns up to the truth and thus prevents himself from repeating his transgressions, he is too exhausted from a lifetime of struggle to battle any longer. In the end, Rudy cannot be saved because he does not believe there is any redemption for what he did.
Hey-soos is a character with a startling resemblance to Jesus Christ who appears to Ben in his dreams. In Hey-soos's words, he is "here to help." While he discusses with Ben the issues he encounters as he lives his last days, Hey-soos does not give him solutions but guides him to discover answers on his own. Ben is never able to clearly discern Hey-soos's exact identity; his therapist at first suggests that Hey-soos is a part of Ben himself. As time goes on, however, and Hey-soos reveals to Ben insights he could never have thought of on his own, Ben recognizes that Hey-soos is a spiritual being separate from himself who has the power and will to "walk [him] through" the labyrinthine paradoxes of life in that "tough town . . . Planet Earth."