Monday, 30 November 2020


My obituary of George Cockcroft, who, as Luke Rhinehart wrote and was the main character in The Dice Man, appeared in the Guardian on November 27th; it had already appeared online but was bumped from the paper paper on the 26th by the death of Diego Maradona. If you missed it in either location, you can link to the online version here

It was a fascinating story to tell, and there were bits I had to leave out and some which had to be cut to fit the length I'd been assigned. I had, for example, started to discuss The Dice Man in terms of other works that play with probabilities; Philip K Dick's The Man In The High Castle, for example, about a decade earlier, had characters throwing the I Ching to decide their actions; Dick himself claimed to have plotted the book using the I Ching. Since Cockcroft's fictional protagonist is also the fictional author, I liked the comparison. But though I felt fairly confident that Cockcroft had likely read the novel, I couldn't really find any connection. Robert Coover's The Universal Baseball Association is about a man whose life is centered on running his own fictional baseball league whose results he finds using three dice,whose numbers read consecutively, offer probabilities through which his simulated games take place. And of course Stoppard's Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead begins with a coin being flipped again and again, with always the same probability of either heads of tales. But intriguing as these ideas were, and the way they might merge together, there was no way to speculate in a couple of lines!

The research was somewhat problematic too. I found several revealing interviews; Cockcroft, once he went public with his identity, could charm his interviewers, especially, as I say, when they visited him on his lakeside house in upstate New York (one of them marveled at being introduced to the peanut butter, olive and mayonnaise sandwich. . But sometimes there were differences in the stories, and it was exceedingly difficult to discover facts, about family, and where he taught, and sometimes when. With a good guess as to his mother's maiden name I did find his ancestor who was Chief Justice of the Vernont State Supreme Court, but I couldn't establish who the governor in his mother's family had been. I know he was at University de los Americas in Mexico City in the mid-Sixties and at Dowling College probably when it opened in 1968 in an old Vanderbilt mansion on Long Island. It might have been their programme in which he was teaching in Mallorca.

The story of his near-death at sea was cut; he actually had apologised to his wife and children for killing them before they were rescued by a freighter blown adrift. He had just bought the yacht with his savings, and was sailing it on vacation before bringing it back to Mallorca. The delay caused him to miss the first meeting with Mike Franklin, whose co-publisher was Shel Talmy, the producer of the Kinks and Who among others, who got cut from the obit, but if you're looking for first editions, the UK one is from Talmy-Franklin. 

His younger brother James was an interesting story himself: the brothers and their wives twice lived together, one of those times being in Mexico City. He was also a writer (of more than 30 books) and professor, and an activist, specializing in left-wing Latin American politics. He predeceased Cockcroft, but there was also an older sister, Patricia, also pre-deceased, who doesn't seem to have figured as deeply in their lives. I also tracked down (online) Tim Linthicum, who wound up an English professor and seems to show up in writers' circles in academia. 

But the most serious bit that was lost was my explanation of the start of The Dice Man, which I felt was necessary because although Rhinehart is a funny narrator, he is also a very self-centered and as Cockcroft said, "the colder harder part of George". The problem was the novel starts with Luke wanting to sleep with his best-friend's wife. So he rolls his die, and the one he rolls dictates that he should rape her, so he does. I wrote that, but it was changed to "have sex with her", which is in a way more accurate because it is a gray area: he goes to their flat, rings the bell, and tells her he is going to rape her. So she invites him in and tells him not to borrow her husband's bathrobe afterwards. The paper was averse to using the word rape because they had received a number of complaints after their obit of Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, but again, to tell the story properly would have taken too long, and I then wanted to mention the very Fifties attitude this "if rape is inevitable lie back and enjoy it" scene represents.

I had never been a fan of the book particularly, but I found it an interesting look at an era that had already changed: Luke was like if Henry Miller had written the Jack Lemmon character from The Apartment crossed a bit of  Holden Caufield.I think Cockcroft was looking for something more existential, as his thesis on Kafka might show, but he's very much in Miller's tradition, that what I do, who I am, is important, even if I lie outside the world of societal expectation.

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