The book is told from the view of Cliff, a big country boy from New England. He and his girl friend Ann decided to get the hell out of Dodge when Ann's stepfather took a liking to her. Not that there was much else holding them back in the hick town they where they busted sod. Cliff revisits the place mentally in the course of the novel with disgust. Although his view of it changes toward the conclusion.
At the beginning of Cheaters, Cliff and Ann are holed up in a boarding house looking for work in a port city only slightly better than the hayseeds they left behind. Ann takes a job as a waitress, Cliff finally lands a position as a bartender at a dive in a slum section of the town. Known as "The Dells", this is the bottom of the ladder for the working poor. The bar serves cheap beer and drinks to the dock hands.
But the real money is made off the girls who use the bar to attract customers. The bar's owner, Charlie, gets a cut out of their business and provides them with a location to turn tricks. To make matters worse, there's a corrupt cop named Red who hits the girls up for protection money and shakes the bar down as well. However, Cliff proves to be a good worker and the bar owner keeps him on.
Cliff does so well running the bar that Charlie offers to sell it to him in installments. Cliff isn't interested at first, but Charlie's bombshell wife Debbie makes a hard play. Cliff finds himself so smitten by Debbie, an ex-dancer, that he considers dumping the now-pregnant Ann. He ends up spending all his time running the bar and brings in a few new girls for the afternoon shift. Debbie entices him with tales of all the money Charlie possesses and how it can all be theirs if he just bides his time.
It all starts to spin out of control one night after Red beats Cliff senseless and leaves a scar to remind him who the real power is in The Dells. Cliff then leaves Ann after Debbie makes it worth his while. But a strike is looming at the docks, the newspapers are pressuring the cops to crack down on all the vice, and Red starts demanding more pay-off money. However, in true Hitt fashion, the book ends on a good note.
Once again, Orrie Hitt shows us the world of working class poverty that he knew so well. His books remind me of the films of Russ Meyer: stark, cartoonish, and lurid.
At least in this book you learn all about the day-to-day functioning of a dive bar.