There's probably at least one worthy first novel lurking somewhere in this stillborn mammoth; but Staff's pseudo-epic attempt to give us San Francisco past and present in two alternating first-person narratives is so misguided that it just about annihilates any evidence of storytelling talent whatsoever. In the contemporary half of the novel, 35-ish San Francisco city librarian James Norton chronicles his love-life, his work, and the 1970s S.F. scene--and Starr has trouble simply finding a shape and a consistent tone for this one narrative: Norton is fine and fuddy-duddyish when writing about the library's scandals and squabbles; but he's coy and banal about his gradually consummated passion for gorgeous, witty virgin Deborah; and he slips into hackwork roman â€¦ clef for S.F. gossip and politics--fictionalized retellings of Mayor Alioto's marital dust-up and Jerry Brown's climb (with a flicker of suspense about some faked photos of the Brown character in homosexual flagrante delicto). None of this adds up or goes anywhere, with Starr apparently uncertain whether to make Norton a hero or a figure of fun, And alternating with Norton's uneventful chapters are the nothing-but-eventful reminiscences of Sebastian Collins, a scholarly 19th-century adventurer and luminary of S.F.'s post-earthquake renaissance (whose biography Norton wants to write). Collins' memoir is a would-be period romp--European studies and battles and duels, sexual initiations, crush on an opera star, travel and family and camaraderie; but the narrative voice is flatly verbose and repetitious, historical figures are dropped in like lead ("" 'I must make love or die,' Gustav Klimt exclaimed to me once""), and when Collins' stilted prose duplicates Norton's (both talk of ""aroused manhood""), it's painfully clear that Starr isn't equipped for the double demands of his concept. What the two heroes have in common, of course (besides some Catholic angst), is San Francisco--Collins revelling in its ascendant beauties, Norton bewailing its decline. But that's not a vast enough irony to support an 864-page novel without a single involving emotional moment. Some special interest, both high-minded and low, for browsing San Franciscans; for non-residents, however, an ambitious literary effort (Start is the ex-professor author of Americans and the California Dream) of gargantuan dullness.