George Cockcroft, who has died aged 88, was known more widely, if not much better, as Luke Rhinehart, author and protagonist of The Dice Man, a 1971 novel that has become a cult classic, “sporadically acclaimed”, as Cockcroft put it.
In the novel, Rhinehart, described as a New York psychologist feeling both bored and unfulfilled, begins making his decisions by rolling a die. Often billed as a book that will “change your life”, at least part of its appeal was originally the inaccessibility of the purported author. Ironically, as Cockcroft began gradually revealing more about himself in the past 25 years, he helped fuel a resurgence of the book’s popularity.
Its publication was itself a matter of some chance. Cockcroft, a college English professor, was teaching in Mallorca in a study-abroad programme and had been writing his novel slowly for a number of years. He showed pages to a friend, Jay Linthicum, with whom he was collaborating on a potboiler. In the village of Deià, Linthicum met Mike Franklin, who was setting up as a publisher in London with the record producer Shel Talmy. Cockcroft finished the novel, Franklin published it and rights were sold in the US for a large advance.
In interviews, Cockcroft described the origins of his dice-life in various ways. He had started using them to make decisions he found difficult as a shy and procrastinating teenager. Or he and college friends threw them to determine dares they would take on. Although another part of the novel’s appeal lay in its relevance to a continuing countercultural zeitgeist, its philosophy of randomness was anchored in Cockcroft’s own life. As he once conceded, Luke was “the colder, harder part of George”.
He was born in Albany, New York, the son of George Cockcroft, an electrical engineer, and Elizabeth (nee Powers). Suffering from terminal cancer, his father took his own life in 1941; George and his younger brother, James, were sent to Albany Military academy. George, doing what was expected, then followed in his father’s footsteps to study engineering at Cornell University, but after being exposed to literature for the first time, changed direction.
His master’s thesis was on Franz Kafka, though he realised later he had missed Kafka’s message that “the world is insane, reason is helpless in a world of chaos”.
From his doctoral dissertation on Henry Miller, Cockcroft took the idea that “beliefs, expectations and fake ideals can limit us and force us to be other than what we really want to be”. Which is a fine description of Rhinehart, who also, like Miller, can be very funny.
The Dice Man was not an immediate success in the US, but sold well in Europe, and has now sold more than 2m copies worldwide. It was optioned by Paramount, originally for a John Schlesinger film, but though it has been attached to some 15 projects over the years, with interest from Jack Nicholson, Bruce Willis and Roy Scheider, it has never been filmed, perhaps because Rhinehart himself is not the likable kind of hero Hollywood prefers. Still, when Cockcroft and backers offered Paramount a million dollars to regain the rights, the studio refused.
As Rhinehart, Cockcroft wrote nine more books. His second novel, Matari (1975), was set in 18th-century Japan; the beautiful heroine flees her samurai husband in the company of two poets – Jules and Jim meets Yojimbo. It was reissued in 2008 as White Wind Black Rider. The Book of Est (1976) was a fictionalised story/guide to Werner Erhard’s group therapy aimed at freeing people from the roles “imposed on them” by their pasts. In 2000 he offered The Book of the Die, a playful guide to living as a dicer, asking that people give up “the illusion they can control life”.
His 1983 novel Long Voyage Back combined the story of his family’s near-death sailing adventure in the Mediterranean, just before meeting Franklin, with a post-nuclear apocalypse. The Adventures of Wim (1986, reissued in 2002 as Whim) was a comic epic whose hero is the apparent saviour of the Montauk tribe; it is told, in 2036 Mallorca, from excerpts from fictional accounts of his life. The Search for the Dice Man (1993) was a sardonic sequel, featuring Rhinehart’s estranged son Larry.
In 2008 Cockcroft finished a version of the potboiler started in Mallorca: Naked Before the World tells the story of an innocent young woman arriving in 1960s hippy Mallorca. His last books were more comic. In Jesus Invades George (2013), George W Bush is possessed by the spirit of Jesus Christ. Invasion (2016) is the story of spherical aliens who take over Earth in order to have fun messing with the indigenous population; he wrote a sequel, told from the invaders’ perspective, called The Hairy Balls and the End of Civilization.
While studying in New York he worked in a psychiatric hospital; one night he saw two nurses hitch-hiking. He rolled a die, picked them up, and married one of them, Ann, in 1956. As Ann Cockcroft she later became a writer of steamy romantic fiction. They settled in Canaan, New York, on land that was part of a Sufi commune in which they had lived for a while.
In later years, as his real identity became known, interviewers came and were charmed by the location, and the writer. Cockcroft took it wryly, amused that, as he wrote: “The editors of Loaded magazine, high on some superb grass, honoured The Dice Man in 1999 by naming it ‘the novel of the century’. More recently the book has been cited by the London Telegraph (using only alcohol) as ‘one of 50 great cult books of the last 50 years’, and by the Toronto Star (stone sober) as ‘one of the 20 great novels not yet made into a film’.”
Cockcroft was the subject of two films on Channel 4, a documentary, Diceworld (1999), and Dice Life (2004), six short dance episodes choreographed by Wayne McGregor in which Cockcroft played Rhinehart. A play, The Dice House, by Paul Lucas, debuted in 2001 and had a West End run in 2004.
He is survived by Ann and their sons, Corby, Powers and Christopher.
• Luke Rhinehart (George Powers Cockcroft), novelist, born 15 November 1932; died 6 November 2020