Reviewed by Ron Charles

Sunday, February 17, 2008; Page BW05


By Samantha Hunt

Houghton Mifflin. 257 pp. $24

Samantha Hunt's magical new novel is a love letter to one of the world's most remarkable inventors. You may never have heard of Nikola Tesla, but he briefly outshone Edison and Westinghouse, and from the moment you wake up in the morning, you depend on devices made possible by his revolutionary work with electricity. Tesla was born in Serbia in 1856, and his life followed a rags-to-riches-to-rags trajectory that would sound melodramatic if it weren't so tragic and true -- or told with such surprising charm in The Invention of Everything Else.

This melancholy romance begins on the first day of 1943, in the New Yorker hotel, once the tallest building in the city. It rises up in these pages in all its mysterious grandeur, a lighter version of the surreal hotel in Steven Millhauser's Martin Dressler (1996). Impoverished by a series of disastrous financial dealings, Tesla has been holed up here with his notes and unpaid bills for 10 years. He's talking to himself or to his beloved pigeon. His reputation has been eclipsed by other inventors (some of them thieves) and derided by the popular press. (Superman battles a mad scientist named Tesla.) There are rumors that he believes he's receiving messages from Mars, that he's building a death ray, that he's working on a time machine.

Indeed, the novel is something of a time machine itself, and not just because of its lyrical recreation of New York in the first half of the 20th century. The story is a Rube Goldberg contraption of history, slapstick, biography and science fiction: a narrative bricolage that looks too precarious to work but is too alluring to resist.

Holding it all together is a young woman named Louisa who works as a maid at the New Yorker. She "imagines herself a small but necessary part of the glimmering hotel," which employs 2,000 people. She's "a sharp city girl, frank, skeptical, and wise, with a desperate weakness for corny radio tales." She lives with her widowed father, a night watchman at the public library, and those lurid radio stories provide the only drama in her life. But they also fire her imagination about "her alter ego, part chambermaid, part detective."

During a blackout on New Year's Day, she notices a brilliant light coming from under the door of a double suite on the 33rd floor. "Someone in that room," she realizes, "has stolen all the electricity." And so begins a touching friendship between an 87-year-old inventor in the final weeks of his life and a 24-year-old woman whose life is about to begin.

A few subplots veer off like sparks -- more eye-catching than illuminating. There are ominous hints of a secret government investigation of Tesla. Other chapters describe his remarkable childhood, his early breakthroughs with alternating current, his bitter rivalry with Edison, his descent into a figure of public ridicule. Hunt throws in stranger-than-fiction anecdotes about the opening of the New York Public Library, the development of the electric chair, and Tesla's efforts to harness lightning and project it around the world. In the novel's present tense, Louisa meets a handsome stranger who seems to have come from the future. And her father becomes convinced that a friend's machine can take him back to see his dead wife.

I realize all this sounds hopelessly scrambled and silly, but Hunt moves through these engaging episodes with a voice that's at once smart and whimsical. And we can't help sharing Louisa's tender regard for Tesla. There's something incongruously vulnerable about this genius who hoped to harness the invisible fluid of the universe. Hunt peers into his childhood for the roots of his loneliness. He's certain that "love is impossible," yet spends his life trying to bring about a "future where human beings have wings and electricity is miraculous and free."

Hunt has so gracefully mingled outlandish fact with outlandish fiction that it's difficult to know where one begins and the other ends, but it's a delightful homage to the scientist who tells Louisa, "I want to be believed." For a moment, in these pages, everything seems possible.