The Dice Man
by Luke Rhinehart (pen name for George Cockcroft)
Rating – 9/10
Summary – The Dice Man is one of the all-time “cult classics” and it lives up to its reputation. In it, a Manhattan psychiatrist, Luke Rhinehart, finds himself stuck in a middle-aged rut. He gets out of it by making all of his decisions based on what the dice tell him to do. This one is a lot of fun.
Review – Conventional success just isn’t enough for psychiatrist Luke Rhinehart, the protagonist of the novel The Dice Man. He has a successful practice in Manhattan, a loving wife, and two kids. But life seems empty. Even worse, he’s convinced that there’s no change that he can make to improve things.
In a deep funk one night, Rhinehart decides to roll a die to determine whether he should rape the wife of one of his good friends. The die tells him to do it and Rhinehart goes ahead. (The woman quickly consents, but – obviously – many people are going to find this to be very offensive). From that point forward, Rhinehart gradually turns his all of decisions over to the dice.
On one level, readers can view The Dice Man as an adventure story. As Rhinehart throws off his restraints, the reader thrills to see what he will do next. A sub-plot involves Rhinehart’s promotion of “dice living” to the general public, which causes many people abandon their conventional lives for the dice. However, the book does lose some of its momentum toward the end, as author Cockcroft struggles to devise new barriers for Rhinehart to smash.
One of the best aspects of The Dice Man is Cockcroft’s biting, sardonic humor. A few of the better passages are –
– “This is a great land of freedom but it isn’t made for people who insist on insisting on their own ideas” (p. 51)
– “Tell me the manner in which a patient commits suicide and I’ll tell you how he can be cured” (p. 268).
– My favorite passage (pages 159-161) involves a patient who disrupts the routine in a mental hospital by encouraging “singing, laughing, whispering, and hugging” among the patients (p. 161). In response, the hospital’s staff asks the physicians to administer the patients’ drugs by force to quieten things down. Moreover, one nurse suggests:
“… that a special iron mesh cage be developed to protect the television set and that its cord go directly from the set which is ten feet off the floor to the ceiling to protect the wire from those who would deny the television set to those who want to watch it. This is freedom of speech. The iron mesh must form about inch wide squares, thick enough to prevent flying objects from entering and smashing the screen but letting people still see the TV screen although with a waffle-griddle effect. The TV must go on” (p. 161).
The entire scene is a wicked satire and the short quote above really can’t do it justice.
It is fair to say that some readers will not be amused by The Dice Man. Cockcroft’s humor is sharp and – even forty years after the novel’s publication – The Dice Man remains edgy. In addition to the “rape” plot, the book also delves into religion, homosexuality, murder, child molestation, and child murder – among other topics. To paraphrase a line I once heard on Saturday Night Live, anyone capable of being offended by anything will find something to be offended by in The Dice Man.
It is also fair to say that some of the jokes fall a little flat. For instance, Cockcroft loves to give characters amusing names, such as Dr. Renata Felloni and Professor Orville Boggles. The names can be amusing, but I think Cockcroft overdoes it a bit.
For those who are interested, there are some “big thoughts” in The Dice Man. At times, Cockcroft asks the reader to consider how our patterns both define and limit our lives. He suggests that breaking the patterns may lead us to fuller lives:
“From children to men we cage ourselves in patterns to avoid facing new problems and possible failure; after a while men become bored because there are no new problems. Such is life under the fear of failure” (p. 152).
The Dice Man is product of its times, that period during the late-60s and early-70s when it seemed the world might come apart. It’s both a fun read and one that asks interesting questions. For those who like edgy books, this one is difficult to top.