Wandering with the Pilgrim: The Red-Headed Pilgrim by Kevin Maloney
Written by Joseph Edwin Haeger
I read Cult of Loretta by Kevin Maloney years ago. I picked it up at Powell’s on Burnside and I don’t know why, but at the time, Kevin Maloney was a household name for me. Had I read him before? No. Had I ever met him at that point? Also no. Did I have an extensive collection of Lazy Fascist books? For the third damn time, no. But there was something about holding that book that felt familiar. I inhaled it, reading the whole book in a day—on a trip from Spokane to Seattle—and immediately passed it to my wife (she loved it). I don’t know when or where the name Maloney came into my consciousness, but he didn’t disappoint. Cult of Loretta knocked me out—it was funny, heartbreaking, raw, and real. I immediately took to the internet to get everything this man has written and, well, that’s all there was. Since then, I’ve read his short stories online and I’ve had the pleasure of seeing him read. I’ve been a fan since I picked up that slim novella, patiently waiting for the next book. And now it’s here and, what a surprise, Kevin Maloney did not disappoint.
The Red-Headed Pilgrim is a book of autofiction, following a young twenty-something named Kevin Maloney as he enters the world on a quest. He’s a modern-day Kerouac, wandering the country to find God—not the one from the Bible, but the one embedded in the natural world. He spends his time reading, meditating, and expanding his mind with drugs. And, of course, the core of his mission: losing his virginity. Kevin is 6’6” with long, bright red hair. He wears his emotions on his sleeve and isn’t worried about being a man’s man (unless he’s trying to prove to his first love that he’s manly enough to provide for her in a post-apocalyptic hellscape, all in an attempt to show her that he’s worthy of having sex with). In the first half, we follow this hapless fellow on his quest, where he inadvertently falls in love with Wendy. In the second half, reality comes to roost when Wendy gets pregnant, and the two free spirits are charged with raising a kid.
Maloney writes humor so effortlessly that you forget how hard it is to do it effectively. There are passages in The Red-Headed Pilgrim that had literal tears rolling down my cheeks (the failed ménage à trois comes to mind); I had to put the book down and walk away just to catch my breath. This is the kind of guttural laugh that makes you realize how important comedy is to life—that it’s something that makes life worth living. But what elevates this book is the emotional impact it carries at its foundation. It’s not simply a fun romp. It has moments that break our hearts as we witness Kevin Maloney sink into the lowest parts of his life. Because we’ve laughed with him, we can now root even harder for him to crawl out of it.
In part because of an unnecessary tweet from Joyce Carol Oates, “autofiction” is a household phrase for writers who spend any time online. At the end of the day, I don’t care how someone chooses to classify their book, but I am curious why someone picks fiction when the content is so clearly cut directly from their own life (a la your main character is named Kevin Maloney in the novel by Kevin Maloney and the book follows his bio beat for beat). So, sue me, I was curious why Maloney made this choice. But then I listened to his interview on the Otherppl podcast where they talked about fact versus fiction. The overall story took place in his life, sure, but by writing it as fiction he’s able to condense transformations that may have taken months or years into a single moment. Choosing this approach gives him the freedom to bend the rules at will, focusing on an emotional linchpin to not only create a more streamlined story but also a more powerful one.
The first half is goofy while Kevin Maloney follows his dick around trying to get laid and find God. We laugh along with his antics, but once the second half hits and he has a child, these antics throw us off balance. Is this bumbling man, who barely feels responsible enough to take care of himself, cut out to take care of another human being? It’s that conflict within the character that creates an undeniable tension that we, as the reader, can’t look away from. Along with having a daughter, his relationship with Wendy also falls apart. The second half lost the whimsey of the first, and that’s the point. Life isn’t a fantasy, and you can ride that wave for only so long before something knocks you off. Maloney preserves the humor in the second half, which helps lessen the tragic blows, but it’s his determination and drive to overcome grief and depression that soothes the burn of his life crumbling before our eyes.
Like Cult of Loretta, I inhaled The Red-Headed Pilgrim in days. I think books like this are going to stick around for a lot longer because they don’t take themselves too seriously and they’re not concerned with making a huge dent in the literary canon—and that’s why they’re truer to life. This story is an authentic look at what it means to be human and to feel, whether that’s complete despair or incredible elation. Kevin Maloney just gets it, and that’s what we’re all looking for. Keep the hits coming, Kevin, we’re ready for them.
The Red-Headed Pilgrim
By Kevin Maloney
Published by Two Dollar Radio
242pgs, 5.50 x 7.50
Paperback: 9781571315496 | January 2023 | $18.95
Digital: 9781953387295 | January 2023 | $9.99
Joseph Edwin Haeger is the author of the experimental memoir Learn to Swim (University of Hell Press, 2015) and the forthcoming fiction novella, Bardo (Thirty West Publishing, 2023.) He writes fiction, essays, poetry, and screenplays. As a litmus test, he tells people his favorite movie is Face/Off, but there’s a part of him that’s afraid it’s true. He lives in the Inland PNW.