The man's birth was an accident, "a mistake of two people past middle age." His father has been dead many years, his mother is now dying, and he is alienated from his sisters and his only brother, who played the role of too stern a father in his life. The site of his birth has been reduced to a flat wasteland, awaiting the future development of the city's widening suburbs. Worst of all, Trees, his lover and emotional lifeline, has left him. Like Melville's Bartleby after a lifetime in a dead-letter office, his is a man whose will to live is hanging by a slender thread.
Sick, abandoned, and homeless, the main character wallows in the murky waters of despair. He "wears the darkness like a coat, a cold, stiff coat." Sometimes a light beam flashes through his mind, like a falling star, its afterglow lightening the dark." And so one day, a vision energizes and transforms his life. Within a week, a "home" built from scrap lumber rises on the leveled birthground where he once had a real home, a place of belonging, roots, identity. In an inspired and astonishing attempt to recapitulate the past, he tills the soil, buys some lambs and a goat, raises produce in a garden. He has regained a purpose for living and flourishes.
The bulldozer of the developers destroys all that one early morning in a matter of minutes. Badly bent but still unbroken, our hero proceeds to rebuild his home underground. He removes endless bucketsful of dirt, domesticates the space, heats and ventilates it, and relishes his successful defiance. However, the machines come back to ready the wasteland for a new housing development. Again the inevitable happens: "Everything snaps, everything caves in with a roar, and you lie in a black hole, hardly large enough in which to turn." For three days he lies buried there, clutching Trees's crucifix to his heart. Then he sees light and a voice says, "It's a miracle that he's alive."
Echoes of T. S. Eliot's Waste Land resound throughout Bertegrun. But among the heaps of broken images and relationships, in the rats' alleys of dead bones, the compassionate presence of Christ is present through every ordeal, symbolized by the cross which never leaves our suffering hero, though he long ago lost the faith of his youth. The Christian symbolism is at times too intrusive, the litany of despair sometimes too repetitive, too much a monologue of misery. Still, none but the most coldhearted can read van der Ploeg and not bring a more sensitized heart to the loners and losers among us; none but an obtuse reader can fail to appreciate the skilled craftsmanship that elevates his writing to fine literature.
Henry J. Baron Calvin College