Cross-country trek hilarious, heartbreaking


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When Neil Young got back on the Horse in the early ’90s, he asked a question many have grappled with over the years: “Why do I keep f---kin’ up?”

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When Neil Young got back on the Horse in the early ’90s, he asked a question many have grappled with over the years: “Why do I keep f—kin’ up?”

Such is the crux of Kevin Maloney’s autofictional The Red-Headed Pilgrim, which follows a hapless young Gen X dude as he stumbles his way back and forth across America.

“In my dreams, I was unstuck in time,” Maloney recounts early on. “One minute I was a baby. The next, I had a beautiful wife and daughter. Then I was back in high school, sitting behind Jessica Nash, watching the gentle undulations of her ponytail. I blinked, and I was 3,000 miles away, a newly divorced dad, sobbing in my car, driving around the Green Mountains of Vermont.”

Maloney — both the author and the narrator of the same name — is self-aware enough to realize the myths he embraced in his youth (Thoreau’s Walden, the Beats, Holden Caufield) were false, outdated and sexist at best. Instead, he takes the tired trope of the young man on the road searching for good times, love and enlightenment, turns it inside out and gives it a good kick in the ass.

“For the third time in less than a year, I was looking out the window as America whizzed by,” Maloney observes from the window of a Greyhound bus. “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.”

Readers of the Portland, Ore., author’s short 2015 novel, The Cult of Loretta, will find some similarities between the two works, particularly in the narrator’s voice and (mostly) unrequited relationships with Angela and Loretta. But Maloney has matured in the decade since the earlier novel was released, his writing more empathetic and incisive. As Maloney grapples with parenthood during his pilgrimage, his observations on child rearing are both tender and uproarious.

“With Zoe’s head on my shoulder and baby drool cascading down my neck, it occurred to me for the first time that the meaning of life might not be zigzagging back and forth across the country for no reason or zapping your brain with magic mushrooms, but this: loving something so much it scares you, as you begin the slow, inevitable process of turning into your father.”

At turns hilarious and heartbreaking, it can be a pleasure (and awkward) for readers to spend time with The Red-Headed Pilgrim. Maloney writes in a casual, self-deprecating style, befitting the swapping of stories across a bar top or kitchen table. Possessing a keen eye for detail, his prose is jam-packed with memorable characters who pop off the page and can’t help but make the wrong choice, time and time again. Yet still they stumble onward because, well, why not?

“I saw that this world was big and that anything was possible,” Maloney realizes, “and that no matter how bad it gets, there are always my dead heroes in their graves not making art anymore, inspiring me to use what little time I have.”

Here’s to hoping Maloney, who also has a collection of short-fiction forthcoming in 2023, continues to do just that.

Sheldon Birnie is a writer and reporter here in Winnipeg.

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