No dice, man

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re­leased 6 septem­ber 432 pages | pa­per­back Au­thor luke rhinehart Pub­lisher ti­tan books

Luke Rhinehart passed away in Au­gust 2012, only to change his mind and come back to life again a few months later. It’s a neat trick, made even more im­pres­sive when you con­sider that he’d never ac­tu­ally ex­isted in the first place.

Rhinehart, of course, is the al­ter ego of George Cock­croft, whose 1971 novel The Dice Man – about a psy­chi­a­trist who resolves to make every de­ci­sion on the throw of a die – in­spired a mi­nor move­ment among peo­ple who fig­ured blind chance might be as good a way of navigating this world as any. Cock­croft him­self, mean­while, as­sumed the lead char­ac­ter’s name – and a fair share of his phi­los­o­phy – for all sub­se­quent writ­ings, de­lib­er­ately blur­ring the line be­tween man and myth.

In­va­sion – the 83-year-old’s first novel since his faked death and sub­se­quent res­ur­rec­tion – uses an in­cur­sion by hy­per-in­tel­li­gent alien fuzzballs as the pre­text for a droll yet im­pas­sioned as­sess­ment of mod­ern Amer­ica’s prodi­gious short­com­ings: all the boil­ing mad­ness of the 21st cen­tury as seen through the eyes of vis­it­ing ex­tra-ter­res­tri­als.

De­spite be­ing “hairy beach­balls” with only rudi­men­tary shapeshift­ing abil­i­ties, the ETs suc­ceed in launch­ing a so­phis­ti­cated cy­ber-at­tack on ev­ery­thing from Wall Street to the Pres­i­dent’s Twit­ter ac­count, with the ap­par­ent in­ten­tion of bring­ing about so­cial jus­tice and a whole­sale re­dis­tri­bu­tion of wealth en­tirely for kicks.

They find a largely will­ing – if fre­quently be­wil­dered – ac­com­plice in Billy Mor­ton, a griz­zled Long Is­land fish­er­man roped in to help them game the sys­tem. Though Rhinehart em­ploys his trade­mark de­vice of reg­u­larly switch­ing nar­ra­tors, it’s this for­mer ’60s rad­i­cal – a thinly-veiled avatar of the reclu­sive au­thor him­self (at one point, he even fakes his own death) – who re­lates the lion’s share of the ac­tion, in a style that es­chews lit­er­ary flourish in favour of a folksy, down-home wis­dom. Along with his wife and sons, Billy finds him­self tossed on a tide of events that carry him from Ber­muda to Bagh­dad, aid­ing and abet­ting the Hairy Balls in their fight against a suc­ces­sion of foam­ing right-wing hawks and blowhards.

As Amer­ica stares down the bar­rel of a pos­si­ble Trump pres­i­dency, there’s per­haps never been a more ur­gent need for a new Catch-22 or Slaugh­ter­house-Five. And from cor­po­rate greed and ram­pant con­sumerism to gun con­trol, mil­i­tary dis­as­ters in the Mid­dle East and dra­co­nian Home­land Se­cu­rity leg­is­la­tion, Rhinehart has plenty of targets in his crosshairs.

But the truth is he is no Heller or Von­negut, and there’s a frus­trat­ingly woolly naivety to much of his anal­y­sis of the world’s ills, which he’s par­tial to de­liv­er­ing via weighty in­fo­dumps with only tan­gen­tial rel­e­vance to the story. These reach peak sledge­ham­merto-nut ra­tio in the reg­u­lar break-out “Items From The News”, which strive for the satir­i­cal bite of The Onion, but feel more like be­ing beaten about the head by a se­ries of Oc­cupy plac­ards. (The UK, for ex­am­ple, is de­scribed as “a US air­craft car­rier ly­ing off the coast of Europe, used for bomb­ing Arabs in var­i­ous places in the Mid­dle East and Africa”. Ba dum tish.)

There’s much to en­joy in In­va­sion: you’ll root for old Billy, while the aliens them­selves – be­ings of un­fath­omable higher in­tel­li­gence dis­guised, of­ten lit­er­ally, as wise­crack­ing goof­balls – are ter­rific fun. And few will blame a Zen-lov­ing veteran peacenik like Rhinehart for de­spair­ing as he con­tin­ues to watch the Amer­i­can dream cur­dle. But the net re­sult of­ten feels less like a novel than the col­lected thoughts of the guy at the next barstool – a na­tional au­topsy con­ducted with the bluntest of blunt in­stru­ments. Paul Kirkley

Both Mark Waters (Mean Girls) and Dun­can Jones (Moon) have tried to de­velop Dice Man movies, with­out success.

Rhinehart has plenty of targets in his crosshairs

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