Students in Randy Blazak's sociology classes at Portland State University receive an assignment to walk through the city of Portland, Ore., imagining they are a visitor from another planet and write down their observations about the culture.
That assignment is also the plot of Blazak's debut novel, The Mission of the Sacred Heart, in which an alien from the planet Elo takes a room in a notorious bohemian northwest Portland tenement to learn why the human race still has hope in a place as infamously dismal as Portland. He becomes involved in the affairs of homeless runaways, rock-star power-couples and a young music-obsessed researcher in the suicidal throes of a broken heart.
Loosely based on an Electric Light Orchestra record Blazak mistakenly believed to be a concept album as a child--note planet Elo--the storyline primarily follows Zak, a heartbroken researcher, in his quest to move on after being left by the love of his life days before they were supposed to be married. He, his new alien roommate and their friends dig deep into Portland's underground rock culture and the numerous delights of alcohol, Zak desperate to think of anything but Petra, the girl who left him.
Much of the story plays like a bohemian hipster version of the film Swingers. It has the same sort of meaningfully shallow conversations and the same layer of tenderness lurking beneath the consistently painful blunders of a culturally savvy but socially clueless protagonist.
Some of the book's best moments are the musical performances in the text. Blazak's descriptions of styles from opera to rock possess a reverence that borders on religious, and they color the relationship between Cozy and Lenny (Zak's musician friends) with a tenderness that floats off the page. But Zak's numerous missteps in his fool's quest to win back Petra--everything from post-breakup mixtapes to drunkenly contemplating the abyss below an ocean bluff--are similarly strong moments, even if only because most readers can identify, having themselves been guilty of similar folly at some point in their lives.
Far from flawless, the book is riddled with the sorts of copy errors common in self published work and employs no shortage of cultural assumptions that may render it implausible to swaths of readers. The characters of Lenny and Zak are interchangeable at times, and the observing alien plot isn't used to its full potential, often seeming more like a character quirk than a separate psychology.
But the portrait of late-'90s Portland is painted with a sociologist's eye for detail. It evokes the energy and spirit of one of the great cultural engines of our times, wrapped around a story that manages to be every bit as poignant and tender in its most polished moments as it is clunky in its roughest.