Fred Trumper, a pathological liar and procrastinator, has earned himself the nickname "Bogus" from his two best friends, Merrill and Couth. After an early bout of gonorrhea, Bogus discovers that he has a freakishly narrow urinary tract which causes painful and embarrassing complications throughout much of the novel. He appears to be a horrible candidate for a PhD, and yet that's precisely what he sets out to achieve. His thesis, though, on an ancient poem nobody really cares about, allows him the opportunity to romp through Europe with his two friends doing "research" on his wealthy parents' dime.
They drink. They hit on women. At a bar one night, a drunken Merrill gets a little too handsy with an American Olympic skier, named Biggie, who proceeds to beat the crap out of him. She feels a little bad afterwards, though, and helps Bogus carry the unconscious Merrill back to their hotel room. Biggie and Bogus then hit it off and, after sleeping together that night, they travel around Europe as Bogus no longer even pretends to be doing research anymore. Biggie soon gets pregnant. The two return to America and get married, which causes Bogus's outraged parents to cut the financial umbilical cord.
Neither Biggie nor Bogus are prepared for adult responsibilities. With the added pressure of trying to raise their new son, Colm – not to mention the continued problems Bogus has with his urinary tract – they are constantly in debt and constantly fighting. Couth loans them some money when he can, but it only puts little dents in their debt. Finally, Bogus's parents relent when they see how bad things are, and the money they loan him helps take much of the strain off. But rather than work on his marriage as well, Biggie takes some of the money and returns to Europe, where Merrill has been cavorting around this whole time. But when Biggie arrives, he learns that Merrill has drowned trying to inspect a tank buried at the bottom of the Danube. Devastated, he returns home only to be devastated again. He learns that Biggie has left him for Couth, his remaining best friend.
Bogus then, for lack of any alternatives, goes to visit his friend Ralph, who is a filmmaker in New York. There he meets and becomes involved with Tulpen, who is Ralph's film editor. Meanwhile, Bogus's urinary problem has caused constant infections, and desperate for a cure (but too cowardly to have the incredibly painful surgery), he tries "the water method", which is to gorge on water to flush out any bacterial. The water method, as a half-brained metaphor for Bogus's hapless life, doesn't work. Tulpen finally convinces him to man up and get the surgery. It's painful and the recovery is slow, but his urinary tract problems are behind him. With Tulpen pressuring him to have a baby, though, he then decides that what he really needs to do is to finish his PhD at last, and moves to Iowa to get it done.
He finishes it and returns home, only to find that Ralph has completed a documentary about Bogus's life. Ambivalent about the whole thing, Bogus nevertheless sits down to watch it and discovers, in the climax, that Tulpen is in fact pregnant with his baby, and has given birth in the meantime. Bogus, ready to grow up and accept responsibility for his life and choices, rushes to Tulpen's house. He resolves not to run anymore and they marry.
Best part of story, including ending:
It's one of Irving's early novels, and it feels like it. But even without the polish of his later works, Irving is great at creating fascinating characters in absurd settings.
Best scene in story:
The scene where Biggie walks into the bar just as the boys are watching her on TV, then proceeds to beat up the groping Merrill is pretty ridiculous if you think about it too hard. So don't. Just enjoy it.
Opinion about the main character:
Characters who create their own nonsense, then suffer for it, are difficult to emphathize with. And Bogus is no exception to this. Don't read the book for Bogus. Read it for everyone else.