Luke Rhinehart: The Dice Man (1972)
FEW NOVELS CAN CHANGE YOUR LIFE. THIS ONE WILL says the
front cover. The Dice Man was a cult classic and it knew it. The way it
works is this. Someone tells you at a party about this book they read; they
tell you about the premise of the book, which is that this guy decides whether
to carry out various shockingly lurid actions, depending on the throw of a die.
It’s an ineresting idea to discuss, whether you’ve read the book or not. Then
you read it. Then you tell someone else about it. And so on. The legend
snowballs. There’s a song about it on Dragnet, the Fall’s cult classic
album of 1979. And so on.
The account you heard at the party suggests an unshaven,
burning-eyed protagonist like Raskolnikov or the underground man. That’s wrong,
as it turns out; Rhinehart is a bored bourgeois psychoanalyst, married with 2.4
children and an apartment near Central Park.
Also, that party conversation omitted to tell you how funny the book is.
The book flourishes its liberal disenchantment to great effect, even though it
murders all the liberals as well. Its true soundtrack should be the Byrds’
jauntily sarcastic “America’s
great national pastime” (1971):
One of America’s great
nat’nal pastimes is –
The dice-throwing is maybe the least interesting part of the
book, except the first time. We learn not to feel tense about this. By towards
the end we are free-wheeling. Rhinehart has been told by the die to attempt to
carry out a murder, and when he throws again to select a victim it chooses his
psychotic former patient, the wrestler Osterflood. They meet and Rhinehart
can’t think of anything to say to prolong the meeting except that someone is
trying to kill Osterflood. They go to a Harlem
apartment where Osterflood has a punishment sex thing going with a whore called
Gina. It takes a few hundred pages before the book has got us to a place where
we accept this as a comic plot. The TV is on and everyone’s stoned.
‘Daddy? Why do I have to
brush my teeth every day?’ the little girl asked.
‘Try this new tube I’ve got
for you, Suzie, and you’ll never ask that question again.’
[Close-up of a big long tube
of Glare toothpaste]
But I had to look away
because Gina was kneeling on the floor, her hands tied behind her back with her
bra, and Osterflood, with his pants and undershorts bunched at his feet but
still dressed in white shirt, tie and suit jacket, was thrusting with his
erect, pink weapon at her mouth, cursing her at every poke. I felt I was
watching a slow-motion movie showing some huge piston at work, but some flaw in
the machinery resulted in the rod’s seeming frequently to miss the wide-open
mouth which Gina, large-eyed and expressionless, was presenting. Osterflood’s
sword of vengeance against the female race kept sliding past her cheek or her
neck or poking her in the eye. Whenever she would seem to have a good mouthful
(she would close her eyes then), Osterflood would withdraw, raging, and thrust
away sporadically, redoubling his curses. It wasn’t clear whether he hated her
more when she sucked him in or when he missed contact and bounced painfully off
her forehead. In both cases he seemed like a movie director enraged because
she, the actress, didn’t mouth her lines correctly.
‘Ahhhggg! How I hate you,’
he yelled and lurched forward and collapsed onto the couch beside me. I smiled
over at him.
He struggled sideways into a
‘Undress me, you disgusting,
filthy hole,’ he said loudly.
Eventually Rhinehart tries to get on with the murder.
‘Come into the kitchen,’ I
He stared wild-eyed at me.
‘I want to show you
something,’ I added.
‘Oh,’ he said, and with a
great effort he turned himself onto his hands and knees and staggered to his
I flowed off behind his
whalelike form toward the kitchen, and as he passed through the door in front
of me I drew my gun from my pocket, raised it in a long endless arc up over my
head, and then down with all my force onto the top of Osterflood’s huge head.
‘Wha’sat?’ Osterflood said,
stopping and turning, and slowly raised a hand to his head.
I gazed openmouthed at his
erect, swaying, hulking body.
‘It’s . . . it’s my gun,’ I
He looked down at the black
little pistol hanging limply from my fist.
‘What’d you hit me for?’ he
said after a pause.
‘Show you my gun,’ I said,
still gaping at his blank, bleary, bewildered eyes.
‘You hit me,’ he said again.
We stared at each other, our
minds working with the speed and efficiency of lobotomized sloths.
‘Just a tap. Show you my
gun,’ I said.
We stared at each other.
‘Some tap,’ he said.
We stared at each other.
‘Protect you with. Don’t
When he stopped rubbing the
back of his head, his hand and arm dropped like an anchor into the sea.
‘Thanks,’ he said dully, and
moved past me back into the living room.
Like Osterflood’s body, the world is massively stable.
Throwing the dice is meant to break up human identity, but Rhinehart and all
his pals go on remaining distinctively and comically like themselves. What it
does supply, both to Rhinehart and ourselves, is inventive entertainment and
outrage; a sort of metaphor of shenanigans in general.
Eventually the scene ends with Rhinehart and Gina engaging
in a prolonged ecstatic fuck while Osterflood, rather bewilderedly, expires on
the floor. With all the Scotch and hash and punishment sex he probably didn’t
notice. Osterflood is marked for us, he used to rape and kill little girls;
Rhinehart breaks taboos by the ton but, ultimately, he just doesn’t break
through the moral stone wall labelled reader-cannot-forgive. Which is not a
paltry evasion. After all the material is much more varied on this side of the
The life experienced by the characters is entirely focussed
on human, social, psycho-intellectuo-sexual concerns. No-one looks out of the
window and Rhinehart admits earlier, considering how to bump off Osterflood,
that he ought to have driven him to some dimly-lit nowhere and done it there,
but he didn’t know any dimly-lit nowheres. Description of the non-bodily world
causes him something like a pathological embarrassment. So he turns aside from
it with a joke:
(After abandoning Lil and the kids)
I had gone to a dingy hotel in the East Village
that made the geriatrics ward at QSH seem like a plush retirement villa.
(In the Bahamas)
I sat up, blinking my eyes and looking toward the
ocean past the rise of sand in front of me. Without my glasses it was only tan
blur and blue blur.
Places are run-down or smart, that’s all. They also have a
farmhouse in the poison-ivy fields of eastern Long Island.
They go there once a year and they play tennis, swim or sail, eat hash-cakes,
talk and make love. 400 pages, and that’s it for the great outdoors.
For Rhinehart’s dice decisions to carry an element of risk,
they need to have a public, someone who might react. But that’s really only for
it to go well in a story. For the patient the important thing is what they
change about themselves. Thus Rhinehart’s (or anyone’s) “concern” for their
effect on others is another name for the patterned behaviour that is to be
vanquished. And as others have discovered, rolling the hateful dice makes
rolling the loveful dice play a lot better anyway.
Still, Rhinehart’s concern for the human and bodily is
intense, which is why he plays games with it.
There’s another day that Rhinehart happens to be in
beautiful surroundings –
one lovely Indian Summer day, with the birds
twittering outside in the bushes of my newly rented Catskill farmhouse, the
autumn leaves blowing and blinding in the sun and a little beagle puppy I’d
just been given wagging his tail at my feet.
What’s this? Is he really interested in this? – No, it’s
here for a purpose. He’s idly tossing dice. Then the dice come up snake eyes
and he has to kill someone. In a complicated way he throws to find out who, and
after some elimination he’s down to a shortlist of six, including his son and
his closest work colleague. He begins to sweat, and now the earlier paragraph
Anxiety is a difficult emotion to describe. The
colorful leaves outside the window no longer seemed vibrant; they seemed glossy
as if being revealed in an overexposed technicolor film. The twitter of the
birds sounded like a radio commercial. My new beagle bitch snored in a corner
as if she were a debauched old bitch. The day seemed overcast even as the sun
off a white tablecloth in the dining room blinded my eyes.
Why the puppy suddenly becomes female is intriguing. But the
description of the emotion is all too recognizable. And Rhinehart, like other
gamblers, though registering the indifference to surroundings caused by intense
anxiety, is now fully awakened. Beautiful days, by contrast, affect him as a
sort of sleep.
NB This post has nothing to do with "The Diceman", comedian Andrew Dice Clay's foul-mouthed and sexist alter ego popular in the late 1980s. In hindsight, "The Diceman" and his raucous support were straws in the wind. I found quite a thoughtful article about this by Joe Renouard:
Labels: Luke Rhinehart