Joshua Bodwell discovered as a young man the extraordinary prose of Andre Dubus, and therein lies a short-story story.

Twenty years ago, when he was just 23, Joshua Bodwell had an encounter that would change his life.

With a book. Or, more precisely, with a writer.

Two decades on, Bodwell still recalls his introduction – to Andre Dubus, the late, great short story writer – with impressive detail.

It was February 1998, and Bodwell, today the executive director of the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance, had stopped in at All’s Well Books, “the one in Wells with the unfortunate punning name,” he said.

We’ll let him pick up the story: “And as I always did when I went over there, I checked the staff shelf. There was a staff pick of what ended up being (Dubus’s) last book. It was the manager’s pick, this guy Claude. I thought to myself, ‘I usually like the books that Claude picks.’ So I picked it up … There were comparisons on the back cover to Flannery O’Connor and Raymond Carver, and it referred to (Dubus) as an American Chekov. Ohhh, that ticks a lot of boxes for me! I fell in love with the collection that winter.”

The book was “Dancing After Hours,” and just a few months later, “by a stroke of good luck,” Bodwell happened upon the rest of Dubus’s oeuvre at a used-book store, Harding’s Books, also in Wells. He bought the whole lot. He still remembers what he paid – $6 apiece.

He also remembers exactly where he was and what he was doing (Thanksgiving Day, at the movies), admittedly just two years ago, when he got the idea to propose to Dubus’s former publisher, the Boston-based David R. Godine, that it bring out the collected works of Dubus.

“I had a lot of stuff rolling around in my head,” Bodwell recalled, ticking off the names of several writers who’d recently been rediscovered. “All these real writer’s writers were having their moment. The literary world was having a moment of appreciating the underappreciated.”

That’s the category where Bodwell places Dubus. But perhaps not for much longer.

This June, the first two volumes of Dubus’s “Collected Short Stories & Novellas” – “We Don’t Live Here Anymore” and “The Winter Father” – were published. Volume three, “The Cross-Country Runner,” is due out in October. Bodwell is the series editor, Godine the publisher, and Bodwell recruited several other notable Mainers to contribute.

“This whole project is about finding him new readers,” said Bodwell. Dubus, he said, is “this incredibly well-kept secret.”

Dubus may not be well-known to the general public, but he was admired by many other writers in his lifetime, and his works were critically well-received. “Dancing After Hours” was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle award; the nonfiction “Broken Vessels” was a finalist for a Pulitzer; and Dubus himself received a MacArthur “genius” award. Still think you don’t know him? You may know the 2001 film “In the Bedroom,” set in Camden and starring Sissy Spacek and Marisa Tomei. It’s a retelling of the Dubus short story “Killings.”

The three-volume project has already received a lot of love. The Paris review published Mainer Ann Beattie’s introduction to volume one. The New Yorker published Mainer Richard Russo’s introduction to the second volume. The New York Times included volumes one and two in its New & Noteworthy column: “These two volumes bring together the fiction of Andre Dubus, one of the 20th century’s most gifted short story writers, who, like Raymond Carver, became a master of the form by writing about ordinary, often struggling men and women.”

Take “Townies,” a story ostensibly about a murdered college girl. Here’s how Dubus briefly describes the job path of one of his protagonists.

“When the factory closed he got a job driving a truck, delivering fresh loaves of bread to families in time for their breakfast. Then people stopped having their bread delivered. It was a change he did not understand. He had loved the smell of bread in the morning and its warmth in his hands. He did not know why the people he had delivered to would chose to buy bread in a supermarket. He did not believe that the pennies and nickels saved on one expense ever showed up in your pocket.”

Tobias Wolff will introduce the third volume. (Bodwell called Wolff, Beattie and Russo his “dream team. I got my wish list of writers like a Christmas present.”) An audio book – ’80s sitcom actor Bronson Pinchot is one of several readers – is in the works for this fall, and Godine is trying to sell the U.K. rights. “I think they’d love him because he takes a dark view of America,” Bodwell said.

Like his characters, Dubus, who grew up Catholic in Louisiana and spent six years in the Marines, had plenty of his own struggles. His first work, “The Lieutenant,” published in 1967, was a novel, but after he decided to devote himself to writing short stories, it took him seven rejection-filled years to find another publisher. He married and divorced three times, fathering six children. (One is the writer Andre Dubus III, now a friend of Bodwell’s.) Dubus settled in Haverhill, Massachusetts, where in 1986, driving home from Boston one evening, he stopped to help two fellow motorists. A car struck them, killing one of the motorists instantly and crushing Dubus’s legs. Dubus, who’d been a lifelong runner, spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair, struggling with depression, multiple surgeries and mounting medical bills. For years after the accident, he wrote no fiction; a decade later, his final book of stories was published. He died of a heart attack at age 62.

Why republish? What does his work have to say to readers today?

“Not only is there great pleasure in reading great fiction that’s really compelling and well-written and riveting, but at the end of the day, they are instructional,” Bodwell said. “They are instructional in the human heart.”

Family, faith and morality, violence, the complicated relationships between men and women – these are the themes Dubus returns to repeatedly in his stories, many of which are set in working-class Massachusetts towns like Haverhill. In addition to Chekov, Carver and O’Connor, Dubus has been compared to several other literary giants – Richard Ford, William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway.

“The complexity, the humanity – that’s why I read him,” Bodwell said. “And the compassion. And that’s mixed in there with drinking and violence and sex.”

As editor of the series, Bodwell was responsible for picking the titles, overseeing the covers and deciding on the size and look of the books. Maine photographer Greta Rybus shot and helped conceptualize the covers, each of which has a single vivid image. Volume two sports a glass of spilled red wine. The patch of speckled, butter-colored linoleum stained by the wine came from Mardens, Bodwell laughed, and cost $3.

Bodwell emphasizes that his responsibilities did not include line-editing Dubus. “Andre’s longtime editor (‘William Goodman, a gentleman of old publishing’) is still alive. He’s nearly 90. He’s the man who fought with Andre about commas and semicolons and such. And he says he always lost.”

Typically, editors work with writers. A book or a story is, to some extent, a collaboration. It goes without saying that when the writer is dead that doesn’t – it cannot – happen.

Dubus said in several interviews that he always wrote with Chekov looking over his shoulder, Bodwell said. “While I worked on these, I had Andre over my shoulder … I constantly said, ‘Does this pass the Andre test?’ WWAD – What Would Andre Do? By the third volume, his absence was weighing heavily on me.”

Bodwell, a short story writer himself, spent two years on the project. In no way does he begrudge the time; exuberant doesn’t begin to capture Bodwell’s enthusiasm for Dubus. “Putting aside my own work to work on these three books has been one of the great honors of my writing life.”

Peggy Grodinsky can be contacted at 791-6453 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: @PGrodinsky

filed under: