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

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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.

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