Born: November 15, 1932;

Died: November 6, 2020.

GEORGE COCKCROFT, who has died aged 87, was better known to millions of readers as Luke Rhinehart, author of one of the quintessential late 20th-Century counter-cultural novels.

The Dice Man (1971), about a bored psychiatrist – also named Luke Rhinehart – who decides to live his life based on the roll of the dice, transcended cult status to become a totem of its time. Presented as a kind of pseudo-autobiography of the mythical Rhinehart, the book tapped into the 1960s generation’s search for freedom with a darkly troubling humour, and went on to sell more than two million copies.

While Cockcroft stayed away from the limelight, the success of The Dice Man saw another 10 books appear under the Rhinehart byline, with some of them later reworked.

Cockcroft’s first novel remained a huge influence on pop culture. Mark E Smith and The Fall paid homage with their song, Dice Man (1979), and Talk Talk’s equally maverick Mark Hollis was similarly inspired to pen Such A Shame (1984).

In the late 1990s, a journalist for Loaded magazine spent two years experimenting with dicing. Loaded subsequently named Cockcroft/Rhinehart the novelist of the century. While his cover wasn’t exactly blown, Cockcroft saw Rhinehart as a different person, and latterly spoke of having multiple selves, writing on his blog as “we”.

Cockcroft took his fiction to what was arguably its logical limit in 2012 when, at the age of 79, he sent emails to 25 friends announcing: “It is our pleasure to inform you that Luke Rhinehart is dead.” What Cockcroft saw as a playful hoax provoked various reactions, and the joke effectively backfired.

“I was getting a little tired of Luke,” Cockcroft told writer Emmanuel Carrere two years later. “I’m getting older, you know. I still love life: seeing what the weather’s like when I look out the window in the morning, doing the gardening, making love, going kayaking, but I am less interested in my career, and my career was basically Luke.”

Cockcroft went on to relate how he wrote the email two years earlier for his wife Ann to send to his correspondents after he died, and kept it in a file before one day deciding to send it out himself.

Whatever his ambivalence towards his career, Cockcroft went on to write four more books; Jesus Invades George: An Alternative History (2013), Whim (2015), a reworking of Adventures Of Wim (1986), Invasion (2016) and The Hairy Balls And The End Of Civilisation (2017). Unless he stages another Lazarus-like reincarnation, this time, it seems, Cockcroft’s passing is for real.

George Powers Cockcroft was born in Albany, New York, the middle child of three to Donald and Elizabeth Cockcroft. When he was nine,

his father, who was suffering with cancer, killed himself. In fragments of an autobiography on his website, Cockcroft said he couldn’t remember anything about his life before that.

According to interviews, Cockcroft began his own experiments using dice aged 16 in an attempt to force him to do things from which his shyness and procrastination were holding him back. He later diced with college friends to decide what to do on a Saturday night.

While he never took his games of chance to the extremes of his alter ego, it nevertheless changed his life. Driving home from his night-time job at a psychiatric hospital while studying Psychology and English Literature

at Cornell University, Cockcroft rolled the dice to decide whether to offer a lift to two nurses. One of them was Ann.

Cockcroft took an MA at Columbia University to be near her, and they married in 1956. After gaining his PhD in 1964, Cockcroft began teaching, with he and Ann living on a sailing boat in Mallorca. It was while running a class on freedom by way of Nietzsche and Sartre that The Dice Man was conceived.

Cockcroft began writing the book in 1965 and, four years later, met a publisher who bought the paperback rights for $50,000. He quit teaching to write full time in between travelling and sailing. In 1975, he and Ann lived in a Sufi commune, before eventually settling with their three sons in an old farmhouse in upstate New York.

While the philosophical and fictional disparity of his other books such as Matari (1975), The Book Of Est (1976), and Long Voyage Back (1983) never had the impact of The Dice Man, neither did Cockcroft court attention as myths built up around him. He returned to the themes of his first book with The Search For The Dice Man (1993) and The Book Of The Die (2000).

His later works, too, retained Cockcroft’s inherent off-kilter sensibility. Invasion (2016) is a political satire about a friendly beach-ball-shaped alien who, along with his beach-ball-shaped friend Moliere, takes advantage of people’s stupidity. It probably wasn’t coincidence the book was published the same year the US presidential elections ushered Donald Trump into the White House.

A year later Cockcroft wrote The Hairy Balls And The End of Civilisation (2017). He described it in his blog as “a book intended to wake people up to the lies we live by. And to laugh”.

Cockcroft is survived by wife Ann, his sons Corbett, Powers and Chris, and several grandchildren and great grandchildren.