Zachary Kocanda Reviews Kevin Maloney’s Novel The Red-Headed Pilgrim

How far would you go to live the life you imagined for yourself when you were young and anything was possible? To avoid working for your dad’s friend’s company for the rest of your life and hating yourself? Kevin Maloney’s new novel, The Red-Headed Pilgrim, chronicles the misadventures of the titular man-child—also named Kevin Maloney—on his journey to enlightenment, his philosophies cribbed from the thinkers on your favorite lovable lit-bro’s reading list. It opens with a prologue by forty-two-year-old Maloney, a web developer who works in suburban Portland office park. A proletariat novel of the twenty-first century, The Red-Headed Pilgrim lays bare the absurdities of what we do to earn a paycheck—teddy bear factory worker, organic farmer, grocery store clerk, crossdressing rock star, you name it—whatever it takes to avoid the soul-sucking experience of sitting in an office for forty hours a week. Until, of course, it’s what you do for the rest of your life.

The mantra at the center of Maloney’s journey comes from Ginsberg’s Howl. Early on, the pilgrim proclaims to his father: “I intend avoid the trappings of capitalism so I can zigzag back and forth across America burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.” This refrain reappears throughout The Red-Headed Pilgrim, a heartbeat driving the scatterbrained plot forward. He cites On the Road as gospel (as well as Brautigan, Slaughterhouse-Five, Thoreau’s Walden, and the words of other “glorified men-children”), charmed by first-semester epiphanies only the Beats and their ilk can conjure. Of course, like his idols, the pilgrim later admits he might have been motivated by reasons other than philosophical: “I wasn’t a transcendentalist; I was a dirty dog.”

Infinitely quotable, the book draws comparisons to the aforementioned Richard Brautigan, Denis Johnson, and other bards of the down-and-outer. Maloney’s prose is cutting in its self-deprecation about being “a pathetic loser, unworthy of … friendship,” yet the character is kind to himself when he needs to be. He’s not self-serious—at times he’s self-flagellating to a fault—but he takes his one life seriously and fights to live on his own terms. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to get by in this country—as young Maloney quickly learns, the United States is not made for people who “had the following life skills: making amazing mixtapes, praying without ceasing, writing poetry at inappropriate moments, and moving across the country for no reason.” This translates into a series of jobs, none lasting very long. Maloney’s author bio includes a catalogue of his previous careers, hinting at some of the careers that will be depicted this novel, an abbreviated version of our protagonist’s twentysomething shenanigans.

In an interview, Maloney remembers his hometown feeling like “the spiritual anus of America,” leading him—and other disillusioned Beaverton residents like him—to travel from coast to coast: “So we all moved somewhere else and for a while it was glorious, but eventually we realized it was pretty bad here too. And so we moved again and again and again, always thinking the next place would save us.” He never sits still for long, convinced a better life’s somewhere else. Our protagonist’s frequent moving starts to feel downright Sisyphean. He is cursed to continue moving in pursuit of an enlightenment. From his teens into his late twenties, Maloney ping-pongs back and forth across the country … “[i]n this weird, forgotten corner of America, we were all hiding from our pasts, playacting adulthood.” He and his girlfriend move from Portland, Oregon, to Portland, Maine, simply to “lift a curse,” based on the girlfriend’s reading of a tarot deck. The pilgrim and his girlfriend conceive a child halfway through the book, and his life—and the novel—is never the same, his starry-eyed joie de vivre bogged down by the economic realities of being a breadwinner as a husband and father. Maloney speedruns through adulthood: There’s a baby, a marriage proposal, and a wedding, during which Maloney blacks out. He moves eleven times in three years to try to find stability for his family. His heroes had no idea what they were talking about: “Kerouac was wrong. The country wasn’t populated by beatniks and angelic hobos. Just men and women waking up at 6 a.m., getting dressed for work, driving their kids to school.”

The pilgrim is especially beaten down by parenthood. Later on, the divorced single-father life has an especially large learning curve, as he lives out of his car—his 1991 Ford Tempo his “very own Walden Pond”—and often takes his daughter with him to the bar. The character’s deadbeat shenanigans have real-world consequences, as Maloney’s ex-wife threatens full custody of the child. These sad-sack portions are laugh-out-loud funny, as bad as you feel for the novel’s narrator. Despite the pilgrim’s goofiness, the stakes are clear, and he truly wants to be a good father. His earnestness makes every setback all the more heartbreaking. He’s burnt out. At age twenty-nine, Maloney observes a bar full of stylish hipsters and feels “a thousand years older than them.” He then stands on his chair and shares words of wisdom to “this generation of talented babies”: “Enjoy it while it lasts, bitches!”

When the lonely Maloney drinks alone at bars, trying to connect with new friends, reconnect with old ones, I couldn’t help but think of 31 Letters and 13 Dreams, by poet Richard Hugo, another native son of the Pacific Northwest. Hugo wrote letters during his own pilgrimages across the American prairie. In one letter, Hugo laments: “On good days, this / is just a town and I am just a lonely man, no worse / than the others in the bar, watching their lives thin down / to moments they remember in the mirror and those half / dozen friends you make in life who matter, none of them / after you are young.” The Hugo quote lodged itself in my brain because I read it a decade ago during that same moment when Maloney read his sacred texts—when life “was just a matter of deciding whether we’d be poets or philosophers or painters.” Maloney’s novel cuts out the past twelve years of his life as an office drone. The important parts are the years when he was young. Making mistakes. Foolishly trying to achieve an impossible enlightenment. Those are the parts ripe for a novel, at least. Those really were the days. Burning so bright.

The Red-Headed Pilgrim, by Kevin Maloney. Columbus, Ohio: Two Dollar Radio, January 2023. 233 pages. $18.99, paper.

Zachary Kocanda’s book reviews have appeared in Heavy Feather Review and Mid-American Review. He lives in Chicago, Illinois. Find more at

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