I’d like to ask Kevin Maloney if he’s familiar with “Return of the Grievous Angel,” the Gram Parsons’ song with themes of wandering, life on the road, and a kind of longing that leads to an inevitable return. I kept hearing this song in my head as I read Maloney’s novel The Red-Headed Pilgrim, which has similar themes. But what struck me more was how the voices played together and diverged into different attitudes. Both are insouciant and have a way of looking at the world askance. But where Parsons’ is knowing, wry, and a bit ironic, Maloney’s is full of child-like wonder and poetry. It’s a thin line between the two. The joyous curiosity in Maloney’s novel keeps it from sinking too far into its underlying bleakness. A bleakness masked by subversive humor, but that exists to shake us into taking stock.
The Red-Headed Pilgrim is a work of autofiction (but, really, what isn’t these days) in which a web-developer named Kevin Maloney has an emotional and existential breakdown at the age of 42. He starts to look back at his life, reflecting on how he got to this moment of crisis, beginning with his childhood of too much TV and McDonalds, and “mainlining high fructose corn syrup, confused whether my real family was Mom, Dad, and my brother Pete, or Mr. Belvedere, ALF, and The Golden Girls.” In high school, he’s part of the “Inevitable Death Society,” smokes a lot of pot, reads Burroughs, and starts wearing a cape. “Nobody was going to have sex with me anyway,” he says, so why not wear a cape. He reluctantly enrolls in college, but after finding psychedelics he drops out and hits the road to satisfy his wanderlust following a winding, kaleidoscopic path of self-discovery, sexual awakening, drugs, and dissolution.
Like Parsons’ speaker in “Grievous Angel,” Maloney’s Kevin sets out in search of something that he feels is missing. Parsons sings of going out west “to grow up with the country,” there’s a sense of adventure but also a sense of seriousness and growth and becoming a “man” who has a good woman waiting for him at home. For Kevin the desire for exploration is a search for meaning, a want to discover a purpose that exists beyond the basic trappings of capitalism. Kevin made himself a promise “never to become one of them—an automaton, a cubicle puppet, an office worker.” He broke that promise, and he forgot what his friend, Dylan, was afraid they were going to forget: “he waved his hand around, indicating air, molecules, kittens, the universe.” This story is Kevin’s attempt to remember.
Kevin Maloney, rendered on the page, exists in a liminal space between character and caricature, and not in a bad way. He’s somewhere between the hysterical realism of Zadie Smith and the sexy, witty misfits of a Tom Robbins novel. He is clownish, yet still sympathetic. You understand his hopes and desires through his trials and tribulations—they are equal measures ridiculous and insightful. Still you are able to see bits and pieces of your own character in his. That is, if you’ve ever engaged in the creative process, wondered what your purpose is, wanted to travel, or have ever been in love. During a failed threesome, the female participants say things like “what are you waiting for? […] put your penis inside of our vaginas.” Of course, this is Kevin’s voice, and it sounds like something a teenager would say, or a grown man who hasn’t quite moved past those teenage years. A grown man who is still, even if now it’s a little repressed, imbued with amazement at all around him. Which is to say The Red-Headed Pilgrim is, in many ways, an unfinished symphony of bildungsroman.
Nietzsche wrote “the child is innocence and forgetfulness, a new beginning, a game, a self propelling wheel, a first motion, a sacred Yes.” Parsons’ “Grievous Angel” comes back world-weary and a little more world-wise. He’s had his adventure, and he’s ready to settle down. But Maloney’s Kevin comes back as something else. Maybe a little world-weary, yes, but his wheel is still spinning. He’s ready to start a new game, ready to hop in a car and go off on another adventure of the self. “Any second […] somebody’s going to roll down their window and ask if I want to go to New Orleans or Detroit or Albuquerque.” Kevin never wanted to land a job as a web developer. It was “a moment of weakness masquerading as adulthood.” He understands that it robbed him, if only temporarily, of that childlike curiosity that leads to freedom. That curiosity, in part, means being willing to take risks, to make (more) mistakes, “to roll out of this life and into another one, and all these years later, I just want to be stupid again. To say yes, yes, yes. I don’t care where. Let’s go.” To leave, to say yes and go, that would be Kevin at his most childlike, at his most free.
The Red-Headed Pilgrim
By Kevin Maloney
Two Dollar Radio
Published January 24, 2023