This Shape We're In author is on a roll

By Karen Valby
Updated March 16, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST

Jonathan Lethem, author of the crime novel Motherless Brooklyn (Vintage), is fielding questions from his audience. They range from the serious (”Why did you become a writer?”) to the non sequitur (”Would you ever live in Las Vegas?”). But perhaps what’s most curious is why Lethem is hanging with this particular crowd — fifth graders at Brooklyn’s P.S. 372. With four of his five novels optioned by Hollywood and a National Book Critics Circle Award under his belt, the 37-year-old writer could be playing with the big boys instead.

He’s fresh from two national book tours, and a highly anticipated half-finished novel, again set in Brooklyn, waits for him at home. But first Lethem is having some fun, be it speaking at a neighborhood school (a third of whose students are special-needs kids like the Tourette’s-afflicted hero of Motherless) or indulging in a few eccentric endeavors. There’s his new book, a 55-page story called This Shape We’re In (McSweeney’s, $9) that his friend David Eggers published. The fact that the book is bound in full cloth and priced in the single digits delights Lethem. ”Any sense of larger purpose is secondary to wanting this unique, enigmatic object in the world,” he says. Then there’s the short story that will be included in the CD booklet of the Maggies, a friend’s Massachusetts pop band, in April. ”Before I hole up to write my book, I’m cluttering the world with my EP releases. I’m trying to indulge my imaginary fan, who’s really me, who likes a shelf full of ephemera.”

The crowd is hungry for autographs and Lethem has run out of Vintage T-shirts to sign. ”We need to do something,” he tells his publicist. ”They’re expecting something from me.” Don’t worry, kids. He’ll deliver.