Over the last two days I’ve read what one advertisement called “the greatest novel and book of travel ever written.” This is pretty big praise for a book you’ve probably never heard of. Adam J. Burke’s novel, Too Much Brother-In-Law was also advertised as “the book of the century,” a declaration that seems a little premature when you realize the book was published in 1901. So, was the book really that good? And what is its connection to the famed dog Railroad Jack? Spoilers are ahead, so in the extremely unlikely event that you ever plan to read this book, you might want to stop here (but let’s be real, you’re not going to read it and I’m going to argue you shouldn’t, so you might as well keep going in this post).
Let’s start with the Railroad Jack connection. Burke shows up in one of my favorite Jack anecdotes. An Albany shoe dealer, Burke somehow got the idea to market a Railroad Jack-branded shoe which he marketed specifically to railroad workers. Ads appeared in the newspaper with the dog’s image and “endorsement” and there was even a picture of Jack on the box. Using a dog to advertise shoes is a fantastically odd little historical tidbit, but the Burke connection gets even weirder than that.
In 1900, Burke fled Albany because he owed his business creditors upwards of $70,000. He went to Los Angeles and the next year published Too Much Brother-In-Law. I knew from some preliminary Google searching and a quick scan of the book, that there was mention of Burke’s former business partner Thomas Ritchie and the downfall of the shoe business. Burke says that the book is a true story with the names changed, so I figured that I’d have to read the book to see if there were any insights into his drama and the shoe store that tried to commercialize Jack in a truly bizarre way.
Now, let me be very clear: this is not a good book, much less the greatest novel ever written. I say this as someone pretty accustomed to 19th and early 20th century literature, so this isn’t just my 21st century literary sensibilities talking. It’s just pretty terrible. Let me explain. It’s hard to read because it jumps around. Characters are introduced at random and the plot skips all over. There’s an unfortunate dose of casual Antisemitism throughout. The book follows protagonist Abner L’estrange. I’m 99% sure that this is supposed to be Burke. And, boy howdy, is he a trip! Abner starts the book in Ireland where he is kicked out of school for questioning the church. This sets up a narrative thread of Abner’s continuous defiance and perceived victimhood throughout the book.
He immigrates to the United States after being pushed out of his homeland by a vengeful clergyman. He gets himself into some tough situations, but often comes out saving the day. A little later, he meets Delilah, a woman who becomes his wife. It’s through this marriage that we are introduced to the brother-in-law, who as the title of the book indicates, is “too much.”
Barney, or “By” as he is better known, is a swindler who turns his sister Delilah against her husband Abner. Abner loses most of his money and dignity to this arrangement. He flees west. He breaks up with his wife. He gets back together with his wife. Most of this drama takes place over one overly long chapter containing some of the most overwrought language you can imagine. In fact, I was pretty convinced that Burke had written an entire novel to simply get back at a lover who scorned him. I’m still not certain that isn’t what happened. He hated “Delilah,” so much so that he even attributes his pet parrot’s death to her wanton emotional neglect. That’s cold. Then she dies, a fact which Burke drops in quite a bit later and quite nonchalantly when he tries to hook Abner up with a young widow.
Much of the rest of the book is an account of Abner traveling on a train and hunting ducks. It’s really boring and adds nothing to the plot. In fact, it seems like it becomes a different book in the second half. It goes from confusing personal melodrama to a dry saga of the west (ok, with some different personal melodrama added in. Just know that if a brother-in-law shows up anywhere in the novel, he’s bad news).
The last section of the book is just Abner and another man complaining about Albany and all of the corruption there. The other man casually asks Abner what he thinks about Thomas Ritchie (who you remember as Burke’s former business partner in real life). Abner talks about how Ritchie got into terrible debt because of some bad investments and evil commercial agents sabotaged his shoe business. I have to think that Burke is letting on about his own situation here. I mean, this whole section literally has nothing to do with the rest of the book. It’s shoehorned in (forgive the pun). Yet, it’s still less random than the conclusion that is simply Burke discussing facts about rattlesnakes.
The entire book reads like the ramblings of a defensive man, someone who felt like he had been wronged by people all his life. The brother-in-law figure represents both an actual person and a metaphor for everyone who slighted him. It’s a novel-length f-you, which to be honest, I kind of respect in a weird way. That still doesn’t make it a good book, though.
So, what does this tell us about Railroad Jack? I’m honestly not sure. I was hoping to have some epiphany about Burke’s motivation behind creating a Railroad Jack shoe, but I don’t have anything concrete yet. I’ve got more research to do to see exactly how much of Abner’s story follows Burke’s, but there seems to be a good deal of overlap from what I know already. Burke seems to be a man with a few axes to grind and an opportunist, which computes in my brain with a man who would pretend a dog endorsed his boots.