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Luke Rhinehart: Throw and tell

Imagine if your every decision was made by the roll of a dice. That was the premise behind Luke Rhinehart's cult 1970 novel The Dice Man. And, as this semi-autobiographical work enjoys a cult revival, David Usborne finds the author still happily gambling with his life

Monday 05 May 2003 00:00 BST

Luke Rhinehart has a mad grin on his face. Thirty years ago, he wrote a novel called The Dice Man, about a New York psychiatrist, also named Luke Rhinehart, who lets go of his humdrum married life by casting dice to decide more or less his every action – starting with raping his best friend's wife. The book wasn't a bestseller, but it won a cult following, especially in Europe. Today, its popularity is taking off again. The question is this: if Rhinehart is the prophet of dicing, how many disciples are there hidden among us today?

"There are millions of dice people all over the world!" he proclaims. "Whenever you see something strange that happens in the news, realise who made that strange thing to happen." What? There is a secret dice religion out there? Might the President of the United States be throwing dice to decide the fate of the planet? "Quite possibly." Well, Ronald Reagan was guided by astrology, so why not?

Rhinehart is a mischievous soul. If you have read the book, you will know this. His idea was a serious one: he wants us, if not actually to take up dicing to dictate the course of our lives, at least to realise that we have options and that escaping the patterns of our existence is at least a possibility. Yet he is also a comic writer. The Dice Man is anti-political correctness and is consistently terribly funny.

So, naturally, he is joking. Let's pretend that there are millions of dicers sabotaging the normality of their lives and those of others around them because, hell, it will promote the book. Seriously, though, how many devotees of the dice way are out there? "I think very few," he replies, finally.

But they do exist. He knows, because he gets volumes of e-mail from fans, many of whom have been experimenting with shaking the dice to alter their lives. He himself fooled with dice for 20 years, stopping only when the book was finished in 1970 and he was 37. He will still turn to them for guidance from time to time. "I was getting behind on those e-mails recently, so I said that if the die came out odd I would just push delete and get rid of them," he says, smiling. "Unfortunately, it came out even."

Naturally, the world of the fictional Rhinehart goes terribly wrong. He loses his wife, his therapy licence and his friends. He turns his children on to dicing. So, when people ask the author for advice about dicing, does he warn them off? No, he does not. Two weeks ago an Englishman e-mailed him to say he was considering giving himself six options – one for each face of the die – for what he should do next with his life. If it came up a six, he would begin alternating between six different personalities. Rhinehart said fine. Thirty minutes later the man e-mailed to say the die had indeed come up six. "Well, that would have been very challenging," Rhinehart concedes. He hasn't heard any more from his correspondent.

Rhinehart is starting to sound a dangerous man. Yet, though he is physically imposing, with a strong-boned face beneath a cowboy hat, he is, in person, marvellously gentle. He's written three books about dicing, including The Book of the Die (2000), a bible for those leading the dice life, and he's working on a new novel, to be called Dice Lady. But he wants us to be clear that his mission is not to convert the masses to the wisdom of living through chance. He just wants us to think about it and about the possibilities. We can use dice to shake up our lives. Or we can do it any other way.

"I am commenting on how people absorb the lies of their society, then get stuck in the lies and limit their lives," he says over coffee in Hudson, the town where he lives about two hours north of New York City. "They can be big lies, like political lies, or small lies about minor aspects of morality or what it should mean to be a human being. We haven't created a society yet where most people are unstuck, happy-go-lucky, playful human beings. When we get to that society – which we never will, of course – we can do without books like The Dice Man."

It is not even as if he expects readers ever to touch a pair of dice to get his message. "I think many people read it and feel that their lives have been changed somewhat, yet they never cast the dice. It is more the idea of the book that matters: the ways of looking at life and letting go of your central self, being open to the variety of actions that you don't normally perform. This idea can take hold with or without the dice. There is an advantage in trying, though, because for some people, if they list six options, none of them particularly breathtaking, they cast the dice and they say, 'No, I don't want to do that one, I want to do this one.' And they find themselves unable to obey the dice. But even that gives them an insight into how limited their lives are. And that might scare them into changes."

What impact has dicing had on his own life? Luke – actually his name is George, but more of that later – sighs. "One person's momentous dicing decision seems like a yawn to the next person. We all have blocks we have to overcome. Just picking a train at random for New York might be a tremendous thing for one person, but to the next person it might seem totally trivial."

He started dicing as a teenager because of his interest in sports. Sitting at home, he would create whole baseball games simply by letting a pair of dice decide their course. Throw two sixes and the player would hit a home run, and so on. But then he tells the story of the summer when, aged 21, he was doing a post-graduate literature degree at Columbia University and had taken a casual job at a mental hospital on Long Island.

"I was driving off the hospital grounds one day and noticed two attractive nurses walking along the side of the road. I went past them, and then I thought, no, I should stop and pick them up. I stopped beside the road, took out the die, and said, 'If this falls on an odd number, I will turn round, go back and offer them a ride.' And I shook the die and it came out that I should turn round and try to pick them up.

"So I did. And they agreed to get in the car with me. I asked them where they were going and they were going to confession. So I had to drop them off at the church. But, meanwhile, I arranged to play tennis with them the next day, both of them. The next day we played tennis and it was at that point that my eye fixated on one of the two nurses, the one whose lovely breasts were bouncing up and down as she ran after the ball. And these many years later, I am still married to this woman."

Years later, Rhinehart started teaching literature at university. "One year, when I came back from Mexico where I had been teaching, I was taking a seminar on freedom. I talked to the students about making decisions in life by the casting of dice as the ultimate freedom. It was so shocking to them, and they were so fascinated by the idea, that I suddenly thought that I should write a novel about it."

The book – and the rest of his life – almost didn't happen. An English publisher, Mike Franklyn, met Rhinehart on the island of Majorca, where he was teaching. Franklyn was allowed to see what Rhinehart had written of The Dice Man. After four years, he had only managed about 200 pages of manuscript, but Franklyn was hooked and gave him an advance to finish it. Then, in 1970, when the book was done (Rhinehart overcame bouts of writer's block by letting the dice decide which chapter he should attempt next), the author and his wife bought a sailing boat and set off from the South of France to Majorca. Along the way, they met a ferocious mistral. They lost their rudder, their dinghy and eventually their engine. "I said goodbye to my wife and apologised to her for dragging her off on this ridiculous journey. We assumed we were going to die." However, the couple were plucked from the ocean by a Scottish freighter, the book was published, and Franklyn sold the rights around the world (the film rights went to Paramount, though it has not brought the story into production).

Luke is coy about the business of his name. He is known to friends and family by his real name, George Cockroft. "I said to the publisher that I wanted the book to be published under the name Luke Rhinehart. For one thing, I didn't feel comfortable with the idea of being the author; I wanted somehow to be able to hide. Also, two of the truisms of The Dice Man are that anybody can be anybody, and – this truth above all – fake it. And I thought, taking Luke Rhinehart as the author, people would think that maybe this is an autobiography, which is exactly what happened. And therefore it would increase the seriousness with which people would look at it.

"Eventually the book sort of faded out of view. It continued to be published in England, Germany, Denmark and Sweden, but that's it," he says. But then he adds: "About five years ago, publishers began to republish it, or publish it for the first time. A documentary film was made about it. My own English publisher got more interested and set about putting out new editions. Three plays have been put on based on the idea of the dice man." One of them, called The Dice House, is to run in the West End of London this autumn. And later this month, Rhinehart will appear for an evening at the Brighton Festival talking about all things dice with Gavin Robertson, who wrote another dice-man play, The Six-Sided Man.

Why this Dice Man renaissance now? "For reasons," ventures Rhinehart, who is 70, "that I don't understand or even have the slightest idea about." But he is clearly delighted, if a little puzzled. "I have no explanation. But the nice thing is that young people are still discovering it. It hasn't really dated for them, even though there are a lot of references that they may not get, because the world in the late Sixties and early Seventies was rather different."

Midway through our interview, Rhinehart clowns a little for our photographer, posing with dice between his teeth. He is a prankster and a comedian, but one with a serious message. Read the book – for many of us, it will be for the second time – and you will not be able to miss it. "From children to men," Rhinehart wrote in the book, "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.

"Fail! Lose! Be bad! Play, risk, dare."

Luke Rhinehart will be appearing at the Brighton Festival (01273 709 709; on 16 May

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