Do I really want to know what a man's "jolt" is?
April 30, 2013 8:25 AM   Subscribe

What would it have meant in the mid-twentieth century to "shake another man's jolt"?

There are numerous versions of the "three rules of life" for men. Variations I have heard include "never play cards with a man named Lefty", "never feel sorry for a beautiful woman", and "never spend venture capital on a limited partnership without a detailed analytical fiduciary prospectus" (Cheers, 1986).

Well, I finally stumbled upon the original version, from Nelson Algren's 1956 novel, "A Walk on the Wild Side":

“But blow wise to this, buddy, blow wise to this: Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own. Never let nobody talk you into shaking another man’s jolt. And never you cop another man’s plea. I’ve tried ‘em all and I know. They don’t work."

OK, so now that I've found original rules, I discover that there are not three, but five, one of which concerns a man's "jolt". Google has failed me. What could it possibly meant in the noir world of the forties and fifties, to "shake a man's jolt"?
posted by dinger to Writing & Language (11 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
See here. "To interfere with the way another is dealing with their [prison] sentence."

See here for "jolt," meaning prison term.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 8:32 AM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Which, I'm assuming, means if someone is getting through their jolt by finding Jesus or something, let them be. In the joint we all just gotta get by, man.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 8:33 AM on April 30, 2013


OED has, as one meaning for "jolt":
b. A prison sentence. slang (orig. U.S.).

which supports the above.
posted by thelonius at 8:38 AM on April 30, 2013


Excellent find, Admiral. I assumed it had something to do with a man's gig, or his woman.

The answer, tho, seems unsatisfying. Why, for example, would you want to mess with another man's sentence, and why on earth would someone else try to talk you into doing it? Hmm...
posted by dinger at 8:51 AM on April 30, 2013


Why, for example, would you want to mess with another man's sentence, and why on earth would someone else try to talk you into doing it? Hmm...

Go watch Season 2 of The Wire. Without giving too much away: a lot of energy goes into manipulating gang members who are doing prison time, to keep them loyal (or at least scared) so they won't inform on anyone who's still outside.
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 9:05 AM on April 30, 2013 [4 favorites]


Another fictional example: All the antagonists in The Shawshank Redemption (meaning everyone except Andy and Red, basically), who spend the whole movie trying to mess with Andy or to push him into doing something he doesn't want to do, either for personal gain or for their own amusement or as a kind of dominance game or whatever. Meanwhile, Andy has his own very clear plan for dealing with his sentence. They are trying to shake his jolt, and the plot is about watching them fail — because he turns out to be preternaturally unshakeable.

So that line from Nelson Algren is basically saying "Don't act like the villains in The Shawshank Redemption, and don't act like one of their goons or henchmen either." Which seems like pretty good advice to me.
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 9:30 AM on April 30, 2013


The answer, tho, seems unsatisfying. Why, for example, would you want to mess with another man's sentence, and why on earth would someone else try to talk you into doing it? Hmm...

I dunno from the original context, but as a metaphor it totally makes sense to me: you ever try and talk an unhappy friend into breaking up with their soul-destroying significant other? People find ways of dealing with their unhappiness that work for them, trying to shake them out of it is unlikely to get them to actually change and very likely to cause them to resent you.
posted by Diablevert at 9:57 AM on April 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


How gratifying it is to realize that I have come this far in life without having violated two of the five rules. (My grandfather was called Doc, and he was a helluva card player).
posted by dinger at 10:04 AM on April 30, 2013


The modern analogue is probably "You do your own time in prison. You don't do anyone else's time for them," from Neil Gaiman's American Gods.

It's not just meant in the literal sense (as in The Wire) but in the figurative sense (as in we're all serving a sentence in one big prison). Meaning, don't try to interfere with the way other people live their lives, just focus on how you live yours.
posted by ErikaB at 11:02 AM on April 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


This expression also shows up in another Nelson Algren book, The Man With the Golden Arm, in contexts that suggest it means going to jail for someone else's crime; I think the figurative sense is more about accepting punishment for another's wrongdoing than about interfering with the way anyone else lives their life, but I haven't read the book. See pages 304 and 307 here.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 5:44 AM on May 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


You know, Baited Hooks, that interpretation seems to make at least as much sense as the other.
posted by dinger at 6:22 AM on May 4, 2013


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