When we learn about the death of 23-year-old Gentry Coats in the opening pages of Kasey Thornton's "Lord the One You Love Is Sick," nobody wonders how he died. His heroin addiction wasn't a secret.

Set in rural Bethany, N.C., the eight pieces of Thornton's debut novel-in-stories mostly build off Gentry's death, incisively examining small-town life and the way that people inadvertently allow tragedies to unfold in their attempts to preserve social mores.

In "I Shall Not Want," Dale, a police officer-in-training, agonizes over his guilt in cutting ties with Gentry. When Nettie, Gentry's mother, asks Dale to sit with her during the funeral, he feels "like she was offering a wonderful, poisoned steak out of the goodness of her heart." She considers Dale to be Gentry's best friend, not realizing that Dale "had erased all evidence that the pre-addiction Gentry had ever existed."

Thornton is especially adept at making us understand grief's varied forms. She follows Dale in other stories, detailing the mental illness that strains his marriage ("Still Waters") and eventually leads him to be institutionalized ("Trespasses"). In "Valley of the Shadow," Thornton captures Nettie's anger at the way people eventually "lost interest in her and her grief" after "her allotted period of mourning had run its course."

The collection's most powerfully devastating story, "Out of Our Suffering," however, has little connection to Gentry. Thornton focuses on the Hatcher family, and renders the workings of a shockingly abusive household from the perspective of 8-year-old Emma. She recounts horrific events in a disturbingly unaffected voice, telling us, for example, "One time my daddy used a vacuum cleaner like a baseball bat to beat the tar out of Mama and when she fell down all the dirt landed on her and she looked like a dead person partway buried."

The story's brutality reverberates throughout the rest of the book, but Thornton doesn't fetishize Bethany's problems the way writers like Donald Ray Pollock or Daniel Woodrell often write about rural life. The town's failure to confront its drug issues and domestic and child sexual abuse are crushing, not moments that energize with their depravity.

Thornton takes her book's title (and Bethany's name) from the gospel of John's story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. But where the biblical story suggests that belief alone will allow someone to experience God's glory, "Lord the One You Love Is Sick" argues that far more is required to tackle the problems her characters face. Here, faith that things will work out only creates a willful blindness to reality.

As Nettie understands, Bethany's residents "didn't want to believe that things like this happened in their town, so they pretended it didn't happen at all."

Vikas Turakhia is an English teacher in Ohio.

Lord the One You Love Is Sick

By: Kasey Thornton.

Publisher: Ig Publishing, 228 pages, $16.95.