Among those books about prison camps, only a few transform the pain and humiliation by extraordinary compassion. In this semiautobiographical novel, Dovlatov (The Compromise, 1983)--whose political consciousness was developed during guard duty at a criminals' labor camp--keeps looking over his shoulder at Solzhenitsyn, Shalamov, and all the other Russian prison writers beginning with Dostoevsky. But, like a stand-up comedian on the Borsht Circuit, there's an emptiness at his core; he uses his pose to sell his prose. A college dropout, a divorced man, a misfit from all points of view including the metaphysical, but too well-intentioned ever to be called a schlemiel, Dovlatov endures a continual identity crisis. He sees that the prisoners are cruel, whimsical, heartless, lost, doesn't like them but wants to be with them. He enjoys the comforts and privileges of being a guard, but sees the pettifogging emptiness of the guard officers' lives, too. So what he really does is think about himself--how he, who had some army pull because he was a boxer, was changed by his camp service into a writer. In the book, skits on life in The Zone in the 1960s alternate with letters about them to a Russian publisher in the 1980s, and everything Dovlatov does is made to seem more important than anything anyone else does: indeed, by getting busted and imprisoned for getting drunk with prisoners, Dovlatov seems delighted to have become a prisoner at last. But what a ruse this is. The criminals are pros; crime is their way of life, their very nature. When Dovlatov the author tries to add the declaration that the Soviet prison is a perfect microcosm of Soviet life, he offers a theatrical performance, intended to bring together Dostoevsky and Soviet power, as a climax to his narrative fragments. But he lacks the master's psychological insights and levels of perceived reality; his dialogue doesn't even sutstantiate his assertion that prisoner slang is witty, pure, and powerful. No intelligent reader will accept Dovlatov's underlying schmaltz--the notion that we're all criminals, whichever side of the barbed wire we're on. It takes someone with a special bent like Genet to make anything of that.