The inventor Nikola Tesla is a historical novelist’s dream. He was the brain behind alternating current, radio, wireless communication and remote control. He was a friend of Mark Twain and a foe of Thomas Edison. Like Alfred Nobel, he had the hubris to believe he could invent a weapon that would ensure eternal peace. He tore up a contract with Westinghouse worth millions. After he died, destitute and forgotten, an F.B.I. agent wrote that the government was “vitally interested” in his papers. Tesla believed he had communications with Mars. He was extremely fond of pigeons. His every action gleams with a kind of guarantee: strange, but true.
Tesla isn’t the only oddball here. Indeed, Hunt’s narrative of New York seems populated exclusively by eccentrics. Its perspective alternates between Tesla and a quirky young chambermaid at the New Yorker, Louisa, who befriends the elderly inventor. Weakened by his failing heart, he needs an arm to lean on in order to make it to Bryant Park for the daily visit to his pigeon.
Louisa is happy to oblige: she finds his stories marvelous and, besides, she’s used to idiosyncratic men. Her father, Walter, a sweet but hapless New York Public Library night watchman, is obsessed with his dead wife. (“You look like your mother standing there,” he says to his daughter. But she is tired of looking like her mother.) Tesla and Walter are both dreamers. When Walter’s best friend, Azor, claims to have invented a time machine, Walter thinks his prayers have been answered. All he’s ever wanted is to return to 1918, to see his wife again.
Azor’s creation is ungainly but beguiling — a time machine because “it is too wonderful to be anything else. Fabricated from what appears to be scrap metal, the surface of the ship is pieced together in an awkward checkerboard pattern, squares of metal in all sizes and shades, some shiny, some dull, the pieces held together with rivets.”
This could double as a description of Hunt’s novel, a fantastic amalgam of plots that have cumbersome and fragile joints. Some, like a narrative detour involving Tesla’s brother, seem to serve no purpose at all. A few metaphors clank (“the question’s monkey wrench is nothing more to him than an annoying black fly that can be swatted away”) and “wonder” appears in one form or another far too often. But at the same time, the book, like that time machine, “is warm to the touch.” It fairly pulses with life.
Without mistaking idiosyncrasy for vitality, Hunt shows what it’s like to have a heart. Walter is weird, but his grief is real. Tesla — real or not — is absurd, but he’s also funny, and the intensity of his ambition is palpable. When these characters speak, you may not believe them. But when they feel, you do.