CHEATERS

By Eric Jerome Dickey

Dutton. 362 pp. $24.95

Reviewed by Yolanda Joe

The one-word title of Eric Jerome Dickey's latest novel is inviting but does not hint at the depth of this wonderfully written book. A reader would likely guess that the novel is about infidelity. Good guess. But guess again. Cheaters is not simply about switching horses on the merry-go-round of romance. It is also about how we cheat ourselves through expectations, demands, desires and emotion.

The novel swings between two groups of friends. One group, the men, includes Stephan, Darnell and Jake. Stephan is the leader, a smooth-talking, upscale, "I'm-gonna-find-the-right-girl-while-getting-my-mack-on" kind of guy. The other group, the women, includes Chante, Tammy and Karen. Chante is the leader, hard-shelled yet soft-hearted -- a bewitching, "I've-been dogged-so-now-I'm-gonna-be-a-dog-myself" kind of woman.

Set in the Los Angeles area, Cheaters provides a thorough view of the hip clubs and trendy addresses that serve as a backdrop for people who pursue shallow, illusory values instead of those with real meaning, like love and faithfulness. Each chapter reflects the point of view of a main character. Although his approach is hardly new, Dickey is able to make each character's voice smooth, unique and genuine. This essential clarity of voice helps readers to keep the numerous lead characters and minor characters clear in their minds.

The novel opens with Stephan wistfully recalling a moment from his childhood, a bonding experience involving his third-grade self and his dapper dad. With this quick scene, Dickey illustrates how strongly family ties affect our thoughts, hopes, ideas and morals. Stephan's daddy is that variety of ladies' man known as a "player." Stephan wants to be a player, too, and live up to the example set by his father. For a while he allows that ambition to distract him from his true desire: to find a special girl.

Tammy is another character with complex family ties. A beautiful actress and talented singer, she has an unsupportive family that drains her emotions. She cheats herself by running away from her past, hiding and hoping that change will be the eraser that wipes away sordid memories of her childhood.

It will surprise no one that members from each of the two character groups will tangle with one another, but Dickey manages this aspect of the plot in ways both predictable and unpredictable. This reviewer declines to give away any more than that. The sex scenes in the book are deliciously written, although in a couple of spots Dickey lays it on a smidgen too thick. The pacing is smooth and crisp, and the dialogue has enough wit that the reader can take time to savor the flip comebacks and the thought-provoking debates over what men and women want from each other -- and what they actually get.

Like a skilled carpenter who drives home a nail with one swing, Dickey effortlessly chooses the right word or phrase to drive home the crucial points in his plot. He is at his finest in several stretches of one-on-one dialogue. The exchanges ring alarmingly true whether they involve two lovers, two friends, or two family members.

Cheaters is more than just a good beach read for the summer. It's a solid, enjoyable, layered book that is a welcome addition to the growing body of fiction that studies and pokes fun at our relationships and how we handle them.

Yolanda Joe is the author of several novels, the most recent of which is "Bebe's By Golly Wow!"