In this quietly powerful first story collection from Michigan native Kristin FitzPatrick, people have an intimate if estranged relationship with loss.

In "Center of Population," a woman assigns her orphaned niece readings from a Kübler-Ross-like manual, and together they proceed aridly through the stages of grief, an emotion she expects the girl to discard like an outgrown toy when they reach the last page. In "Queen City Playhouse," Mrs. Duesler tries to pre-empt grief by stashing her cancer-stricken husband in a dressing room of their family-run Cincinnati theater with a pile of blankets and stash of pills.

Many of FitzPatrick's characters live in tight-knit Catholic communities across the industrial Midwest, in the America of the late 1960s to mid-'80s. A deep pleasure of "My Pulse Is an Earthquake" is her flawless evocation of this recent yet impossibly distant era, when families gathered around the TV set to watch "Wild Kingdom," girls took home ec and groupies followed the Grateful Dead.

In the near-Gothic "Canis Major," she mixes humor and violence in a manner that would do Flannery O'Connor proud. In the Detroit suburbs, 12-year-old toughie Rosie O'Neill loves helping her dad with his home business breeding Rottweilers, which he rewards with live rabbits and sells at a premium to frightened white city dwellers unhinged by the 1967 riot. Of her father, Rosie says, "Even surrounded by dead rabbits … he was still a romantic."

Details of workplace and profession are important, serving as lenses through which characters refract their fears. "The Lost Bureau" finds twenty-something cop Andrea completing her first week on patrol, harassed by male colleagues but determined to protect and defend after violence strikes her family. At home she helps her little sister with her homework and pins up an anatomy chart in her bedroom for "target practice" alongside prayer cards from her grandmother's funeral.

Some stories feature recurring characters, in shifting roles. Richard Sims, a young British historian who has married into an insular Irish-Catholic Chicago family, rides up the Hancock Tower to meet his former lover, the middle-aged Raisa, in "A New Kukla." Instead of gazing at the gleaming city below, "He studies her hand, follows the bending and bulging green veins until they disappear at the knuckles. The skin is folding, settling in irreversible patterns of lines." Set 10 years later, "White Rabbit" focuses on Richard's son, the troubled Ollie, who stages Houdini-style stunts in an attempt to understand the compressed, enshrouded life of his stillborn sister.

In the end, even the most creative stunts and schemes come up short for FitzPatrick's characters, but her elegant and compassionate stories show the beauty of their struggle.

Marian Ryan is a writer whose work has appeared in Slate, Salon, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Mail on Sunday and other publications.