An Excerpt from Light House
By William Monahan
Tim Picasso did not know whether such a thing as a criminal mind existed, but if it did, he did not, so far as he knew, have one. Like everyone else, though, he thought from time to time of doing something roughly unlawful. His fantasies of crime took a specifically cinematic direction. At the age of sixteen he had entertained an enthusiasm for international art theft. In Tim's view, being an international art thief mainly involved suavely upending condesas (film ones, not the real ones with warts and mantillas), poisoning Alsatians (whatever they were), and breaking into castles in Spain to the accompaniment of an ominous John Barry score. Obviously, this was more of a fantasy about being in a 1960s film than it was about making off with the loot. Obviously, Tim was not a criminal. When he was at art school in Boston a few years later, though, he realized that he could not go into a museum without trying to figure out ways to infiltrate the place at night — with daring, ropes, and nobody hurt— to make off with somber Rembrandts, insolent Picassos, exorbitant van Goghs. Then, after having sold the paintings (wherever, of course, one sold a painting), Tim would… well, he'd do what international art thieves did, which was drive around in sports cars, wearing sunglasses, smoking cigarettes, and stopping at interesting places for lunch. His actual criminal experience consisted of this: at the age of five, a large-headed child with a solemn disposition, he stole a piece of penny candy — a Squirrel Nut— from a village store. Hiding around the corner, Tim unwrapped the candy and then found himself unable to eat it. He returned the item ("You little bastard," said the nice old man who ran the store), and was dragged into a park and beaten up by his cousins.
The fact is that Tim was an intensely moral person, though without being annoyingly messianic. He had never stolen anything really, and he never told lies, which, as far as Tim could tell, everyone else did almost constantly. He had an abnormal predisposition for integrity, which in general did him very little good. In his public high school, he was at first popular, the way good-looking people always are— even, or especially, if they are bastards— but he befriended several flinching math spastics, started reading esoteric paperbacks, and was subsequently martyred. At art school he spoke his mind respectfully and intelligently, which is the last thing anybody wants from someone with a highly developed critical faculty. Tim was often in hot water with the faculty for having naively asked Socratic questions at inappropriate moments.
On top of being actively unfair to others, Tim was immensely talented as an artist. This was a kind of brutal and involuntary unfairness, like being good-looking, or being genetically the best pole-vaulter in the world, which meant that quite a lot of people hated him automatically anyway. Tim could produce very carelessly in almost any medium a kind of undeniable artistic success that other people could not seem to accomplish with any amount of effort in a single medium. This was certainly undemocratic, and perhaps it was supernatural. Therefore, Tim had to be discouraged in various ways, for the good of Society. When he applied for a postgraduate grant to teach painting in Italy, it was pointed out to him by Dr. Locarno that Tim's paintings at the time (which were delusively representational and reminiscent of Vermeer) were aesthetically interesting, but artistically invalid.
"I beg your pardon?" asked Tim.
Dr. Locarno had an upright shock of hair and appeared to be undergoing electrocution for sex murder. He glanced at Tim, coughed unnecessarily, and sorted through some papers. "I don't know exactly what that means," he said. "I realize you've had some success… some beginnings of commercial success. Rather unusual for an undergraduate."
"Yes, I'm the only one who can paint."
"Shocking," said another member of the board. "This is why you get nothing."
"You've sold paintings," said Dr. Locarno, who was still giving his paintings away to friends.
"Shakespeare made money," said Tim, with his usual destructive candor. "But doesn't mean he didn't need Southampton's guineas."
There was an interval in which the members of the board tried to figure out what Shakespeare had to do with Italians on Long Island.
"We're disturbed by your application essay. 'Beauty'? 'Truth'? What in God's name are the Keatsian verities? When I looked at your proposal I thought I had gone mad. Where's your compassion for the Human Condition? That's what we want. Where's the Human Condition?"
"In every painting, sir. I think."
"Well, we want it overt. Have a look at Ms. Rindle's Oppression series. That's Art. Let me tell you something, Picasso. Art isn't about talent anymore. It's about Sincerity."
"I see," said Tim.
"I'm afraid you're not dispossessed enough. I'm sorry. We have limited funds."
Tim spent the next several months in his studio apartment in Boston, brooding, painting, starving. He spent all his money on slides and postage, and got a show together in New York City. But the gallery caught fire, and the only result was that Tim unknowingly exerted influence upon— i.e., was ripped off by— a number of more established painters, while getting nothing himself, and running the insane but very common artistic risk of being ultimately perceived to have plagiarized the people who are actually your plagiarists.
In desperation, Tim wasted a few months trying to write a novel (he was also good at that), but then, like any respectable member of his generation, he succumbed to profound inanition and despair. Tim had great powers of impassivity (very common in the "insipid" hero of the traditional bildungsroman), and being a New Englander, he went fairly respectably about the business of disintegration.
One day, coming out of a bookstore in Cambridge (he had just sold the last of his books, and was wondering vaguely how much he could get for his overcoat), Tim ran into his friend Andrew Spine, an Australian reputed to be rich, who for some reason posed as a student of art history at Harvard. The two men went into a bar.
"Graduate?" asked Andrew Spine.
"What?" asked Tim.
"Go forth into the infinite world to make one's mark."
"I didn't either." Andrew stuffed peanuts into his mouth. "Never do. That's not the point of it, for a gentleman."
"Vexilla regis prodeunt," said Tim, who was extremely well-read.
"What's up, then?" asked Andrew, who wasn't.
"Nothing. I don't have any money. I think I'm going to die."
"Have you ever tried to get a job?"
"No," Tim said.
"Know how to sail?"
"Are you prone to motion sickness, or a closet homosexual?"
"Ever been down the Islands?"
"As a matter of fact I haven't," said Tim.
A week later he was on the island of Tortilla, sitting on his duffel bag at the edge of a dock in a palm-thatched slum, sketching listlessly, while Andrew Spine made furtive phone calls and talked to some people who were lurking in an adjacent bar. It was very unclear to Tim, who was wearing dark glasses, what, precisely, was going on. A policeman with a machine gun asked him, successfully, for spare change. He did a few watercolor sketches, and instantly sold one to a Norwegian couple, who then tried to take him back to their hotel. When the tourists had been discouraged, Tim lit a cigarette and brooded.
However brilliant visual art is, he thought, and had for months been thinking, it is a kind of basket-weaving. It had belatedly occurred to Tim that any of the traditional media, late century, were very medium mediums. It was possible that there was no longer any honor to be obtained in the arts. As far as painting was concerned, surely it denoted insufficiency as a man to be overly interested in layers of pigment, and the production of artifacts that may have been better than most, but which were nevertheless trivial. Tim stared with Elsinorean dubiety at the fifty dollars the Norwegian tourists had paid him for an undifficult thing that had cost him nothing and in which he was not even interested.
This troublesome facility aside, what if he didn't make it as a painter, anyway? What if, through no fault of his own, he didn't become a brooding maestro of international fame, with a French farmhouse and galaxies of esoteric mistresses? He imagined himself at sixty, crippled, climbing in and out of a wrecked panel van at Yosemite, handing out sad cards and surviving on the thin sales of books titled Watercolor Witchcraft or Chiaroscuro Made Easy. He'd submit arduous, deeply informed masterworks to juries of craftsy widows and socialist crackheads like Dr. Locarno, in the thin hope of winning $125 every once in a while, and then finally die in the gutter, coughing pitifully. "Artists" like that existed. Tim had seen them.
Worse than that, he might even end up teaching. He imagined himself wandering inebriate around faculty parties (Tim foresaw the post-Romantic wreckage he could easily become, because he was a Romantic) and ultimately offing himself with a swan dive from the ersatz campanile of a midwestern college when it was impossible to live with himself anymore. But there was no getting out of being an artist. Tim knew one great and salvatory truth: that art, like sincerity, took care of itself. Tim would be an artist even if he was reduced to the interior of his own mind. Dr. Locarno could be an artist only if he got a lot of people to agree to call him one, and had a lot of theories and positions and a particular kind of beard.
Andrew Spine suddenly reappeared, striding through the hard Caribbean sunlight. "Look, I might as well tell you now," he said. "This isn't an ordinary boat delivery. In fact, few of them are. The yacht was not only stolen from Venezuela, it's full of cocaine."
"Oh," said Tim.
"Have any problems with that?"
"Yes, I think I do."
"No worries," said Andrew. "They bought it off the Coast Guard."
Tim couldn't see where he had much choice in the matter, and they went to sea without incident. Tim never did learn where the cocaine was hidden. Andrew talked cryptically of false masts and hollow keels. Tim had his suspicions about the fact that in the galley the lockers contained hundreds of cans of cheaply labeled Chinese water chestnuts. ("They get left," said Andrew. "People don't eat them.") Tim didn't worry about it. He was content to read a buckled copy of Hamlet which he'd found in the cabin, and to steer a course fairly ably on his watches. Mainly he stayed out of Andrew's way when he was doing anything complicated, which is the soul of seamanship.
Andrew Spine was a very good sailor, having been a yacht racer for years. But he was Australian, and therefore perpetually drunk, with, furthermore, an alarming tendency to piss off the rail without holding on to any part of the boat. Two days out of Key West, Tim came up on deck, squinting in the marine sunlight, to find the yacht rolling in a heavy ground swell, the sails luffing, and Andrew nowhere to be seen. Tim looked everywhere, but Andrew was demonstrably gone. All that was left of him (apart from a wallet crammed with credit cards) was a solitary deck shoe lying pathetically on its side and an empty rum bottle rolling around in the cockpit.
Tim lowered the sails, started the auxiliary diesel, and turned the yacht north.
William Monahan's novel Light House is available from Odyssey Editions.
Published March 23rd, 2016
In addition to the novel Light House, soon to be a motion picture, and prize-winning short fiction, William Monahan has written the Academy Award-winning screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, and other screenplays including Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven. He has written and directed the feature films London Boulevard and Mojave, with Oscar Isaac. His Becket, a new adaptation of the play by Jean Anouilh, is to be directed by Michael Mann, and his current project is Evel Kneivel for Paramount Pictures.