Bright novel that overstretches credibility; Morgan's Passing, by Anne Tyler. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $9.95

By all accounts, Anne Tyler is prodigiously talented. Her last novel, "Earthly Possessions," drew rave reviews in papers ranging from the Los Angeles Times to the New York Times. And the crown prince of urban fiction, John Updike , has judged her work not merely good, but "Wickedly good."

"Morgan's Passing," her eighth book, pulses with this talent only in spurts, like a jalopy with a dirty carburetor. At times the characters and plot seem to be stuck together with baling wire and chewing gum. But in the end, the book plops you at its promised destination as surely as if it were a purring limousine.

Morgan Gower -- clear-eyed, black- bearded, angular as a carpenter's rule -- lives in Baltimore with his mother, sister, wife, and seven daughters. To escape a household knee-deep in chaos, Grower spends most of his time trying on different professions as if they were hats. Never content to be merely Morgan Gower, hardware store manager, he searches his costume-stuffed closet each morning deciding "who to be today." He lurks on downtown street corners disguised as Reverend Gower, or an Arabian immigrant, or a Mohawk Indian high-rise worker, spying on other people's lives.

He is obsessed with roles and disguises, so when he meets Emily and Leon Meredith, a young couple who make their living as puppeteers, the clarity of their daily routine fasinates him. When Emily suddenly goes into labor prematurely during a church fair performance, Gower, posing as a doctor, leaps from the audience and delivers their daughter into the world.

From this chance meeting come the shifting relationships at the novel's core. Morgan is "awed by the Merediths -- by their austerity, their certitude, their mapped and charted lives." He imagines their world to be as uncluttered as their stark apartment, and he begins to follow them, popping up in their path unexpectedly, like an eccentric uncle.

Aloof at first, Emily and daughter Gina gradually develop a fondness for Morgan and his quicksilver character. They find that over the years his presence brings a whiff of vitality into their lives, while Leon's retreat behind a wall of pride sets in motion the novel's final chain of events.

"Morgan's Passing" is about puppets and freedom. Emily sews her Cinderellas and Snow Whites with loving care, finding a kind of creative release within the confines of her craft. Her life and work are almost synonyms for order.

Morgan, on the other hand, would like to cut all his strings; he's chasing pure freedom. "I just trust my muscles to tell me what I'm here for," he says. "To drop me into my true activity one day. I let them lead me." Yet he seems a puppet, nonetheless, acting out the drama of his own discontent, never free to shed his disguises. It is an ingeniously conceived irony.

Unfortunately, the book's execution does not always match its conception. Fiction doesn't have to be realistic, but it does have to be believable, and in "Morgan's Passing" the characters often have the lifelike ring of solid oak. Morgan's eccentricities are too cute to be convincing, and the chaos of his household seems more choreographed than described:

"Amy was doing something to the toaster. The twins were mixing their health food drink in the blender. A French book flew out of nowhere and hit Liz in the small of the back.'I can't go on living here any more,' Liz said, 'I don't get a moment's peace.'"

Twins enter stage left, cue French book. With prose like this it's hard to forget there's a writer pulling the strings. Marriages unexpectedly founder, and just as unexpectedly begin. Lifelong actors become committed bank officers overnight. Well-adjusted adults turn unconvincingly into babbling neurotics. Tyler seems to be running a puppet show of her own, showing characters around as if they had no inner life.

But a puppet show is still a type of art. Flat characters may be flimsy vehicles for a weighty theme, but in this case they're serviceable. Morgan is mired in disguises. Emily, open and undisguised, teaches him the freedom of simplicity. Like puppets, they seem too slick, too shiny. And like puppets, they represent archetypes - in which we often see a little bit of ourselves.

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