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The central theme in Chris Crutcher's Deadline is truth. The main character Ben Wolf's spiritual guide, Hey-soos, says that truth is the "only one thing that's universal." At a metaphysical level, he explains that "there's a lot in the universe that humans don't understand . . . but the truth doesn't need to be known, or believed, to be true." When he learns that he is dying, Ben embarks on a quest for truth. He begins to read voraciously, choosing books that challenge the accepted order of things, and he learns that many established tenets held as fact are in essence "uninformed beliefs." Ben is motivated by his observation that "a lot of things" like wars and bigotry occur because of "faulty information," and he sees education as a means "to cut down as much as possible" on these tainted but widely held convictions. Ben discovers that truth is often nebulous and elusive, defying categories of black and white. Hey-soos, Rudy, and Coach Banks, who counsel Ben at different points in his final journey, emphasize that truth is best sought through questioning and by heeding the noble instincts of the human heart.

Even as it explores the nature of universal truth, the narrative, as it unfolds, actually focuses heavily on the concept of truth in a more concrete sense. In his speech delivered at graduation by his brother Cody, Ben stresses, "If you don't learn anything else from my death, learn to tell the truth." When Ben decides not to tell anyone about his potentially terminal illness, he does not initially think about all the ramifications of his actions. Without really intending to, Ben puts himself in a position where he is living a lie because he is trying to maintain a semblance of normalcy in a situation that is anything but normal. Circumstances quickly demonstrate the pitfalls inherent in his choice; Ben, who is a good person who deeply values the people in his life, finds that he "can't be [his] brother's best friend while hiding something that big . . . can't expect to be loved by Dallas after [he's] gone if [he doesn't] let her know what's happening to [him] . . . can't look Rudy in the eye."

As Dallas, who knows firsthand the destructive nature of secrets, observes, not telling the truth "especially with people you care about . . . ruins everything." When Rudy confesses to him the sins of his past, Ben sees that truth has the power to prevent "the worst from happening." Conversely, as Dallas again so succinctly notes, secrets can "kill you." Dallas looks forward to the day when she will finally be able to reveal the secret of her son Joe Henry's parentage to the world. When Ben finally finds the courage to tell Dallas the truth about his condition, he hopes that speaking the truth will bring him the same sense of liberation, but instead Dallas breaks off their relationship, which "feels worse than dying." Ben learns the hard way that while telling the truth makes things clearer, it does not necessarily make them easier; but in the long run, as Hey-soos says, "It's easier if you tell [the truth] in the first place."

Life and Death

Closely tied to the theme of truth are the questions associated with life and death. When he receives the news that he is going to die, Ben is overwhelmed with disbelief, fear, and an "intense curiosity." His understanding of what happens after death is not fully formed; Ben says, "I know something's next. I don't know what, but something." Hey-soos tells him that God is a force who operates beyond the limits of human cognition,...

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and that all things began and will end with him. Death itself is not an ending but a transition, and life is a "practice field" for what lies beyond. In the time he has left, Ben tries mightily to figure out "who [he is] and why [he's] here." He knows from the very beginning of the end that his chances "aren't about living, they're about living well." Living well, of course, means being able to maintain a quality of life that will enable him to enjoy his remaining days, and "not [go] out bald and puking," but to Ben, it signifies something deeper as well. Ben wants to leave a legacy, an influence on others that is positive and good.

In trying to discover the meaning of life before he dies, Ben finds that life is not a simple thing. Living is hard, filled with "subtleties and paradoxes" that challenge his "fundamental understanding of right and wrong." The complexities involved are brought home to him with breathtaking clarity when Rudy dies; Rudy was a sex offender, "about the lowest thing this society has to offer," but to Ben, Rudy "didn't seem like that kind of low guy . . . he just seemed sad." In trying to help Ben understand life's purpose, Hey-soos uses the metaphor of a game, putting special emphasis on the fact that it is "interactive." People need the support and company of others; "when there's no connection, people die." In the end, Ben realizes that all you can do is play the game the best you can: "You put yourself out there in the truest way you can and hope others do the same."