“Wasted Days,” a nearly 10-minute ripper from Cleveland band Cloud Nothings, culminates with singer Dylan Baldi shouting the refrain “I thought I would be more than this” with such vein-popping intensity that it’s miraculous his vocal cords didn’t shred like tissue paper.
As The Red-Headed Pilgrim (Two Dollar Radio) begins, one can imagine this soundtrack playing in a loop in the head of the book’s protagonist, Kevin Maloney, a name also shared with the book's author. In the opening pages, the fictional Maloney sits in a cubicle, 12 years into a soul-sucking office job, wondering how he ended up in this situation. It’s a feeling familiar to the other Maloney, who started writing the novel when he was a dozen years into working with a company in the suburbs of Portland, Oregon.
“I had a half hour to 45-minute commute in the morning and an hour in the evening, and I was having some of those thoughts like, 'Okay, this is the one place I promised I would never end up, and yet here I am,'” said Maloney, who skirts the line between fiction and reality in the novel, roughly half of which is based on actual events. “I thought it would be a relatable starting point when I started writing before COVID, and then COVID happened, and everybody was pushed into a sort of existential crisis about their job and career. So many lives got upended and flipped upside down that we all had the chance to ask, ‘Is this where I want to be?’”
For Maloney, the process of writing The Red-Headed Pilgrim served as “a life raft,” as he termed it, keeping him tethered to his artistic side at a point when his office job threatened to consume his identity. “In a way, [writing] this was an attempt to hold onto that 18-year-old version of myself who said he would never do this,” he continued. “I was trying to be obvious about that, like, this book in your hands, this is me still trying to live my dreams, for better or worse.”
Eric Obenauf, co-founder of Columbus-based independent publisher Two Dollar Radio, said he first crossed paths with Maloney at the 2016 AWP Conference & Bookfair in Los Angeles, where he purchased a copy of Maloney’s debut novel, Cult of Loretta. “He’s such a funny writer, but he’s also able to juggle serious topics, too,” said Obenauf, who devoured the book on his flight home from L.A.
The following year, when Obenauf opened Two Dollar Radio Headquarters alongside his wife, Eliza Wood-Obenauf, the two selected 10 books to highlight in their Parsons Avenue store that Obenauf believed “realistically couldn’t be found in any other shop in town,” including Cult of Loretta on the list.
The respect, it turned out, was mutual. Maloney described Scott McClanahan’s Crapalachia: A Biography of Place, also published by Two Dollar, as one of his favorite books of all-time. Meeting Obenauf, who he said resonated a chilled “skater/surfer energy” only endeared the indie publisher to him more. “So, I always had it in the back of my mind, like, wouldn’t it be cool to publish on Two Dollar,” said Maloney, who will visit Columbus for the first time this week, reading
And while that’s exactly what came to pass, it wasn’t exactly a straight line to publication, with Maloney first pitching Red-Headed Pilgrim through an open submission form in the fall of 2021.
“At this point, we get probably 500 to 700 submissions from agents submitting writers’ work to us. And in addition to that we get probably 1,200 to 1,500 unsolicited submissions each year from the writers themselves,” said Obenauf, who noted that Two Dollar recently completed a deal with a writer who first submitted an unsolicited manuscript in October 2021, which is more typical of the timeline.
Maloney, though, benefited from name recognition, with Obenauf initially planning to skim the first few pages of Pilgrim and instead blowing through the entire novel. So, less than three weeks after Maloney submitted to the slush pile, a deal between the two was in place. “We live in Portland in a very tiny house, and we have a small house on wheels in the back that my wife uses as an office, and I was running across the yard like, ‘Oh, my God! Oh, my God!” Maloney said, and laughed. “It’s a dream press, and it felt like this was exactly where the book was supposed to land.”
This celebratory sprint through the backyard played like a sped-up version of the walks that Maloney said were key to the writing process. After completing a section, Maloney would record himself reading the passage aloud into his phone, and then listen to it on repeat while walking the streets of Portland. Gradually, this helped the author dial in the novel’s effortlessly conversational tone, the intensive process, which involved breaking the language down on an almost granular level, somehow resulting in a text in which none of these seams are visible.
“When I was 18, I read a Kurt Vonnegut novel and it was like, ‘Oh, it’s so easy. You can just talk to the reader and be charming and funny!’ And what I didn’t realize then is that it takes 20 years to get to that point, and I still feel like I’m working on it,” Maloney said. “I’ll write a first draft and kind of find the joke. But the same way that there’s timing and delivery for a stand-up comic, I think there’s a way to punctuate a sentence or place a line break that can really affect the humor of a story. And so, I really had to go over it over and over and over again to find the timing of the jokes and to make sure everything landed just right.”
While Red-Headed Pilgrim is undoubtedly a funny book, it’s a weighty one, too, carrying an emotional heft that Maloney traced in part to becoming a father in his mid-20s, at a time when “I had really only been obsessed with myself,” he said.
“My first book was zany, whimsical and humorous, and I was curious if I could bring that same energy into a more serious subject, which is something that happened with me in having a kid at age 25,” he continued. “I was this young, idealistic person traveling around America and living this life inspired by books on philosophy and religion and reading the Beats at an early age. And then all of a sudden that just stopped. And I had to be a dad and a husband and to support a family, and it all just sort of fell apart.
"So, I wanted to write about that time in my life, but with bringing in some of that levity from my first book. And I think that was the challenge I set myself.”