IT'S HARD TO BEAT Portland writer Polly Dugan's Portland bona fides: She's a former Powell's bookseller and a four-time veteran of the Tin House Writer's Workshop. Cred is hers to burn, but I suspect she'd do just fine without it: Her first collection, So Much a Part of You, is a quiet triumph.
So Much a Part of You marries the scope of a novel with the graceful economy of a good short story. The linked stories in the collection are individually modest, almost unobtrusive. Set against one another, though, they reveal surprising connections—reflecting perspective and insight back onto themselves.
Dugan introduces many characters in this collection, and it's tempting to impose a narrative on the stories as a whole—a temptation even the book jacket falls prey to: "Two young women who've dated the same man navigate love, destiny, loss, and choice in this powerful debut," the jacket copy trumpets. Well, sort of; there are indeed three "main" characters, two men and a woman, whose lives and relationships serve as organizing principles for the stories here. But part of the pleasure of this book is that it brings the reader into glancing proximity to so many people, and so many stories. It's about as close as fiction comes to capturing the way people really do move in and out of each others' lives—one year mattering a lot, the next year mattering just a little.
In the story that opens the collection, a young boy, walking nervously over the exposed third rail on train tracks he must cross on his mail route, thinks about how close he is to the lethal charge. "The proximity of possibility plays on his anxiety," writes Dugan, in a line whose internal poetics belie its apparent simplicity: the near rhyme between "proximity" and "possibility," the suggestion of freedom slanting into fearfulness. Later, that boy grows up; we'll see the kind of man he becomes, and how he treats his children. And we'll remember that kid on the tracks, and it'll inform the way we think about what we learn of his fate.
Some of the stories are happy, and some are sad; relationships start and stop, kids are born, parents die. Through it all is the suggestion that it's the stories we tell about the things we care about that keep us anchored to the world. As one of Dugan's characters puts it, toward the end of the collection: "Life is too hard sometimes, but life is all there is."