Jon Ferguson approached novel writing in much the same way he approached his life's work of playing and coaching professional basketball - by the seat of his pants. He was supposed to be a philosophy professor.
"I was going to get a doctorate in philosophical anthropology. I was set to go to the University of Chicago, and all of a sudden I just got sick of it. I got tired of the language and the whole setting. I had not played basketball since high school, but I was a decent player, and I just decided to use my body again."So he hopped on a plane to Europe, got a job with the first team for which he tried out and has been in Switzerland for the past 25 years. A graduate of Brigham Young University, Ferguson returns to Salt Lake City this week as part of a book-signing tour for his latest novel, "Farley's Jewell."
He will be at the downtown Barnes & Noble store on Aug. 13, 7:30 p.m., and at the Barnes & Noble in Layton Aug. 14 at 7 p.m.
In Ferguson's novel, Farley - the protagonist - is a charismatic philosophy professor who wrestles with questions of existence and consciousness while temporarily separated from his jealous wife and watching his mother slowly die of Alzheimer's disease. All details, except the philosophy professor part, are from Ferguson's own life.
A subplot of the novel revolves around David, one of Farley's students. Down to his frequent headaches and existentialist girlfriend, Ferguson says David represents himself in his senior year at BYU.
Considering he doesn't believe human beings are set up to know the truth, Ferguson rubbed along fairly well in LDS society until he was called on a mission.
"I went through the LTM, and I had all kinds of philosophical questions, I mean basic questions about truth, knowledge and all this stuff. The teachers couldn't deal with them. You know, I was a nice guy, I just had questions. A couple of months later, I was the only guy who didn't get on the plane for Argentina."
Instead, he went back to BYU, served as student-body vice president and got his degree in sociology with a minor in philosophy.
Ferguson credits his courage to leap from academic to athlete to author to his study of philosophy, especially Nietzche. "The thing that studying philosophy did to me was it made me feel like I could do anything, that my brain was equal to any brains that had lived. So I wasn't afraid to do anything. You see me tonight in an hour, I'm Mick Jagger in the coach's concert, and I just make a total fool out of myself cause I do not care."
So philosophy makes you so you don't care?
"It made me feel that the whole thing was just a joke. I'm just happy to have a brain and a conciousness, and as far as the rest of civilization, I'm not afraid of anything."
Ferguson now coaches, teaches English and this summer runs a youth basketball camp. He also recently decided to try painting and had an exposition at a Swiss gallery. The idea for "Farley's Jewell" came from his speculation of how his life would be had he gone the academic route.
Several times, the novel flashes back to Farley's classroom lectures, including one on consciousness, which quotes a lengthy passage from Neitzche. Of all the chapters in the book, the one on consciousnes is the most mind-blowing, and it serves an important purpose for both Farley and Fer-guson.
"That is a fundamental problem that Farley the human being deals with; a total putting into question what human consciousness is all about. The thing that most people haven't got is what I'm trying to say about language in this book - that language in no way necessarily corresponds to reality.
"Farley's mother - I do this on purpose to talk about language - when she is confusing everything, it doesn't make any difference to Farley. He stays close to his mother, because he doesn't care what she says. He just wants to hold her hand and massage her head and stuff. He doesn't care if she makes any sense, because to Farley, nobody makes any sense."
The final chapter begins with a peek at Farley's mother's thoughts. Her dimentia is reflected by a lack of puncuation and complete sentences, and the chapter continues in that style as it narrates Farley's day at Zion National Park. In this way, Ferguson tries to illustrate Farley's connection to his mother.
This connection parallels Ferguson's relationship to his own mother as she died of Alzheimer's. "My two brothers couldn't deal with my mother. They didn't want to see her really, they would ask questions like, `Does she recognize me?' I didn't care a bit. I had as much love, feeling, sensitivity . . . I enjoyed seeing my mother. To me, it was just love. I didn't care what condition she was in."
The heavy exploration of Farley's thoughts and the description of his lectures don't leave much room for a plot. However, the novel is not about plot. "The purpose of the novel is to get out a feeling about what it is to be alive, to be human," Ferguson said. "If anyone else wants to feel that, that's what I wanted to express - my philosophy of what it is to be alive."