Anne Tyler seems to be playing on the word “passing” in the title of her latest novel. Near the end of the book Morgan Gower’s obituary is published in the newspaper, suggesting that he has indeed “passed on.” Actually, though, Morgan is not dead; he reads the obituary and is seized with fury, knowing that his wife Bonny, from whom he is separated, has inserted the death notice as a trick or sign. As it turns out, the sign is that she has a new boyfriend and will now give Morgan a divorce. He has, therefore, passed out of Bonny’s life, his own former life, and into a new one in which he hardly has an identity. He cannot protest to the newspaper about the false obituary because he now goes by someone else’s name. His own mother does not know him when she sees him (a nice ironic touch). His life is not settled yet, and, as the novel ends, Morgan is looking to a future rich in possibilities. He seems, however, to have passed into a life in which he can be more fully himself.
Morgan has thus made a “passage” in another familiar, in fact, trendy sense, one that is rather a cliché: a middle-aged man leaves wife and family for a much younger woman. There is otherwise nothing overfamiliar about Morgan or his story. He is a vital, original comic hero, the product of a generous and richly inventive imagination.
In his first life Morgan hardly knows who he is, but he works at being a number of people. Romantically black-eyed and black-bearded, he gets up each day and chooses not clothes but a costume. His closet is jammed with outfits—soldier, sailor, Mexican, Klondike, African safari—and hats of all kinds. On his way to work at the hardware store or on his lunch hour he may become several different characters. One person knows him as Father Morgan, the street priest of Baltimore, who works with drug addicts. Another knows him as a poor immigrant, speaking a language that sounds something like Russian (but is actually gibberish) and sadly longing to hear from his far-off family.
By assuming different identities, Morgan thus preserves a sense that he is not settled in any dreary, mundane existence, but that the world has infinite possibilities. In this way he wards off his father’s fate. When Morgan was in high school, his father, for no discernible reason, committed suicide. Forced to speculate on why a man should do such a thing, poring over what he has left from his father (a sheaf of technical instructions), Morgan thinks perhaps his father ended his life because he did not really know what else to do. He was just bored. There is, thus, a dark side to Morgan’s desire to invent and reinvent his life. He has become a person who makes things look more interesting than they really are.
In a way, Morgan’s life is interesting, and in a way it is not. He lives in a house bulging with female relatives: his senile mother, his spinsterish sister, his wife, and seven daughters. Luckily they have a nice, big house, given to them by Bonny’s wealthy father. Luckily, also, Bonny is a blowsy, easy-going, spontaneous sort of person, who can cope good-humoredly with the endless demands, quarrels, and stresses of her life. Her house is so full of a kind of energy and endless entertainment that even after they have left home, the daughters when ill come home to recuperate. Yet, Morgan is not fully a part of this life; he stays on the edge. Himself a person with many interests and hobbies, most unrelated to any of the others, he lives in a house of related people with unrelated worlds.
Needless to say, Morgan does not find managing a hardware store very interesting. The store is owned by his wife’s family, who have given him the job. Now forty-two, Morgan has been looking for a better job for nineteen years. Most of the work is handled by the clerk Butkins. Once Morgan had had a female clerk, and Morgan came to think of her and himself as Ma and Pa Hardware. He began to live in the scenario he was creating until one day he called her Ma, and alarmed her so much that she quit. The store is now a dreary place for him, although he gives it little of his attention.
At an Easter fair at a Presbyterian church, Morgan enters the lives of Emily and Leon Meredith. He does so rather dramatically, under the identity of Dr. Morgan, by delivering their baby. Suddenly the puppet show stops, just when Cinderella is dancing with the prince, the audience is dismissed, and a gangly young man steps outside the curtain and asks if there is a doctor in the house. Morgan rises to the occasion with aplomb, announces himself as doctor, starts out to drive the young couple to the hospital, and on the way helps Baby Gina into the world. He is untroubled by his deception—after seven daughters, he has a good idea of delivery procedures—and behaves with great confidence. Then he simply disappears, leaving Leon and Emily to...
(The entire section is 1992 words.)