THE WINGS OF THE MORNING By Thomas Tryon Knopf. 568 pp. $22.95

THOMAS TRYON is half joke, half genius, a man with an improbable name -- it could have been made up by a publisher's publicity department -- and an improbable life, whose writing has moved serious critics to sputtering rage. Part of the sputtering undoubtedly stems from reaction to Tryon's life, which sounds as though it had been written by a third-rate novelist. I mean, here's a guy who was a movie star who quits the movies to write novels and the novels he writes become best sellers. Come on.

The galling thing is that Tryon did it; the improbabilities are true. His name is indeed Thomas Tryon; his family's American roots go back to Colonial times to an outspoken Tory named William Tryon, royal governor of North Carolina and New York. Born in 1926 in Connecticut, he enlisted in the Navy at 17 during World War II and served in the South Pacific. After the war he entered Yale, studied art, graduated with honors, went to New York to become an artist, worked one summer painting scenery at the famous old Cape Playhouse in Dennis on Cape Cod, was asked in an emergency to fill a minor role in "Caesar and Cleopatra," caught the eye of Gertrude Lawrence, and on her advice took up acting. He appeared on and off Broadway, went to Hollywood, played leading men in second-rate films, starred in a Walt Disney television series, got better parts in better films, and won and award for his rendering of the title role in Otto Preminger's "The Cardinal."

In short, he was indeed a movie star. But in the late 1960s, he quit acting to become a writer and his first novel, The Other, a Rosemary's Baby type of horror story, impressed Robert Gottlieb, the New Yorker editor who was then editor-in-chief at Knopf. Gottlieb guided it into print in 1971, and the book leaped onto the best-seller lists, where it stayed for seven months. Tryon's second book, another blood-and-terror tale called Harvest Home (1973), was also a best-seller, but now the critical reaction was chilling. "Reads like a parody," said the Christian Science Monitor. "Maladroit," said Newsweek. "Into the trash basket," said the New York Times.

Undaunted -- hell, he was making lots of money for himself and Knopf -- Tryon in 1975 published his third novel. Called Lady, it got away from horror and explored the relationship between a boy and an older woman. Reviews were mixed, quieter; sales ditto. A year later he had another big seller, Crowned Heads, a set of four novellas about Hollywood. Some reviewers called it "masterful" and "powerful," but others kept jabbing at Tryon. "If I wrote War and Peace, the actor-turned-writer said, "some of these people would find something to carp about."

He didn't publish again till 1986, when he brought out not War and Peace, but a big novel about Hollywood called All That Glitters. In 1988 he produced The Night of the Moonbow, another bloody horror story. And now we have The Wings of the Morning, Tryon's seventh novel (he has also done a children's book called Opal and Cupid).

Wings is something completely different for him, a historical epic set in Connecticut around 1830. It is the first part of a projected multi-novel sequence called Kingdom Come that, according to the publisher, will carry us "into the expansive excitements of 19th-century America, into the obessive passions -- for land, for the sea, for money, and for God -- that propelled Americans of that time to daring enterprise and restless voyaging."

Maybe so. At least the effort makes clear that Tryon is much more than just a pretty face. He is obviously intelligent, knowledgeable, widely read, hardworking, an indefatigable researcher -- the book is drenched with period detail. But lists of objects -- flowers, vegetables, furniture, clothing, books, tools -- are worked into the text so persistently that at times it seems an echo of a yuppie-oriented mail-order catalogue. Tryon unquestionably has narrative skill but, coupled with his detailed knowledge of the artifacts and speech patterns of the period, it sometimes leaves the reader feeling as though he's being given a tour of a museum village.

Dozens and dozens of characters are introduced, more than 60 in the first 35 pages. There is murder and violence, a duel, an elopement, a vivid description of a shipwreck, and some sense of social give-and-take. Yet this first book of the historical sequence is essentially an account of a few years in the life of a young woman named Georgianna Ross and her often hectic relationships with people in and around the fictional village of Pequot Landing.

For some reason Tryon has chosen to write much of the book in the style of an early 19th-century novel, with maybe a dash of Dickens and a whole lot of Sir Walter Scott. Thus, on the first page of the first chapter: "From dream to waking; only a moment in time, yet how long a passage. For the nimble air of the morning carried the scent not of spices from old Cathay, but of new-cut hay and clover, of a fine, fair Connecticut day in late spring, with gold in its mouth, as the saying went. And she was no captain's lady, but only plain Georgie Ross, the miller's seventeen-year-old girl, with all her chores to do before Poppa woke." On page 177: "And the beloved shingled, clapboarded house, the gilded weathervane, the blessed goslings and ducklings, the calves and foals, the babbling stream that meandered through the meadow. How could she ever bear to leave it all?"

Yes, it does read like parody. But if it is, it is also a 568-page tour de force, and with it Tryon has proved something. I'm just not quite sure what it is. Robert W. Creamer is writing a book about "baseball and other matters in 1941."