Thursday, March 30, 2017

Do you take a chance, FAN?

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 –

poisonin’ rain...

actin’ insane...

inflictin’ pain...


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 sitting position.

‘Undress me, you disgusting, filthy hole,’ he said loudly.



Eventually Rhinehart tries to get on with the murder.  



‘Come into the kitchen,’ I said.

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 feet.

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 said.

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 tell Gina.’

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 wall.  


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 pays out.


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:



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