A grievous loss, a longing for revenge and a road trip that yields a journey of redemption: These are the broad components of "Heat Signature," the second novel by Los Angeles author Lisa Teasley, who transcends the psychological thriller genre with sensitively drawn characters and a literary sensibility.
Sam Brown, 31, is the son of an African American mother, July, and a Native American father who at July's insistence has never been part of Sam's life. But what really torments him is the loss of his mother, who was raped and murdered when he was a teenager. It's a tragedy that leaves him feeling "he may as well be a child; the pain is just as hot and fresh."
As the novel begins, Sam faces another painful reminder of the event, as her killer is about to be paroled from a San Diego prison.
Though Teasley could have stuck to the surface elements of the plot, she also develops her characters in subtle, interesting ways -- including a poignant back story for July. There are also a number of nice descriptive passages throughout, adding to the novel's contemplative, melancholy tone: "He stares at the ocean, the sailboats following one another in a thin line of glistening citrus gold on the water. It is five o'clock; the sky is pixilated with smog and indecision over a hot or cool color palette."
Sam, meanwhile, is a broken but lovable character who is perpetually lost -- "never choosing what he wanted, but rather what chose him." He is aimless, haunted by terrifying nightmares and afraid of intimacy with women: "Considering himself damaged goods, he thought he did them service by not sticking around." Sam's most solid relationships are with his late mother's boyfriend, Joe, whom he lives with in the shadow of Joshua Tree National Park, and with his best friend, Abel, who is like a brother to Sam.
His tough, loving girlfriend, Haley, refuses to give in to Sam's detached way of living and tells him bluntly that he can't keep running from his pain. "I'm not running," he says. "I just need to think. I just want to get out on the road." Teasley uses Sam's terse, laconic utterances to reveal someone who, emotionally, has been self-protectively shut down for far too long.
His road trip takes him to Oregon, where his mother was killed, to the exact location where it happened. Along the way, the events leading up to his mother's death are revealed, along with new information about the murderer. (There's more to the crime than Sam thought, it turns out.) For Sam, it's a journey filled with anger, guilt and self-destructive impulses, but one that ultimately propels him toward a (possibly) more stable future.
In the end, the mystery behind July's murder is not what carries the story. It's the relationships among these characters -- complex, fraught and easily recognizable -- that are the most interesting aspect of the novel. Sam's latching onto various women as he cheats on Haley reveals the lingering pain of violently losing a mother, and his closeness with Joe is sweetly awkward.
When Sam calls Joe from the road and Joe signs off by saying "Okay, son. Love you," Teasley captures a powerful moment with typical subtlety. "Joe hangs up, and Sam stands as if encased between the lines on the sidewalk," she writes. "He squats right there, not caring who's looking, burying his face in his hand, never having heard Joe say that before."
By the time Sam returns from his trip, he's learned that much of what he and Joe knew of July's past is wrong. This knowledge brings the men closer, finally grounding Sam in a way he's never known.
But it is Sam's relationship with himself that is most transformed, as he realizes that he needn't cling to being a lost soul for the rest of his life.
"Heat Signature" doesn't exactly offer a happy ending, but there is a sense of solace and hope. Tragedy and loss hang over Sam even until the final page. Yet Sam's resilience is oddly inspiring, and the lack of closure to his struggles makes this narrative even more poignant, affecting and true.
Carmela Ciuraru is the editor of six anthologies of poetry, including "Solitude" and "Motherhood."