Ballad of the Whiskey Robber: A True Story of Bank Heists, Ice Hockey, Transylvanian Pelt Smuggling, Moonlighting Detectives, and Broken Hearts Paperback – Sep 13 2005
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From Publishers Weekly
This story of a bank robber who captured a nation's sympathy in post-Communist Hungary is a rollicking tale told with glee and flair. Attila Ambrus sneaked over the border from Romania into Hungary in the waning days of Communist rule. After talking his way onto a Hungarian hockey team, he turned to robbery to make some cash in the Wild West atmosphere of the early 1990s in Eastern Europe. As journalist Rubinstein shows, Ambrus was quite good at it. Taking advantage of poor police work, he took in millions in Hungarian currency and became a headline-grabber. He managed to stay at large for several years while continuing in his role as a back-up goalie on the ice. Rubinstein has a knack for telling a good story, and he captures well both Ambrus's appeal and the atmosphere of the first few years of capitalism in Hungary. Along the way, he introduces readers to memorable characters in addition to the appealing, alcoholic protagonist: the women Ambrus attracts and a Budapest detective driven out of office by the crime spree. While Rubinstein (whose work has been collected in Best American Crime Writing) overwrites at times, he has a rootin'-tootin' style that's a perfect fit for this Jesse James–like tale, which has the chance to be a sleeper that transcends nonfiction categories.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
It was in October 1988 that 21-year-old Transylvanian Attila Ambrus found himself on the streets of Budapest with nothing but a glint of cleverness, which quickly landed him a position as third-string goalie for Hungary's best hockey team. However, failing to supplement his nonpaying job with janitorial work, or sales of Parker pens and illegal pelts, Ambrus began a series of 29 armed robberies that lasted seven years and captured the imagination of ordinary Hungarians. The robberies were distinguished by their outrageous success, of course, but also by Ambrus' "fortification" of choice (hence the moniker Whiskey Robber). Rubenstein offers a well-detailed narrative of Ambrus' robbery spree and the efforts of earnest but underfinanced policeman Lajos Varju to catch him. Readers may agree with the author's implication that Ambrus' journey was quixotic, or they may look at these desperate acts and the sad conditions in Hungary that spawned them and say it was all just a crime. Alan Moores
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
Top Customer Reviews
The story picks up in 1988, when Attila arrived in Hungary to start a new life. Penniless, Attila scraped by with whatever oddball job he could find until, unbeknownst to him, his future life of crime would begin taking shape with his tryst as an ice hockey goalie at the nucleus of his ambition.
Rubinstein infuses this incredible journey of cops'n'robbers with both poignant historical reference points and helpful North American moments of interest to help guide readers through this labyrinth of events. What's more, the author's charming and candid style breathes even more life into this already real cast of colourful characters, and this mostly unrelated family of accidental misfits transforms into a loveable crew of antiheroes.
Readers can only hope that Rubinstein will pick up this story upon Ambrus' eventual release [or escape] from prison.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Lovers of comic novels such as Confederacy of Dunces, The Gingerman or any of the farcical novels of Thomas Berger and Magnus Mills should love Ballad of a Whiskey Robber.
Julian Rubinstein proved to be a great artist who managed to do all what seemed impossible.
His interpretation is simply perfect. I am saying this as a Hungarian who lived in Hungary when the series of robberies happened and who knows how corrupt the country is (was?), which is probably an unavoidable consequence of transition from planned economy to a market economy.
When I first heard from this book, I was particularly curious to find out what a non-Hungarian would think about the stupendous story of the `whiskey robber' but I ordered the book with an immense feeling of discredit. I would have never expected that someone without the cultural background would ever understand those strange Hungarians :-)
Having read the book, I have to admit now that Julian Rubinstein was indeed able to do it so well that sometimes I had the feeling that the book was actually written by an English-speaking Hungarian. I think I could never give a compliment bigger and more honest than this.
I recommend the book to those that want to know more about what it felt like to be a Hungarian after the transition, to those who are curious to know the story of Attila, to those who love exciting criminal stories and great humour.
And if you're Hungarian? Then this book is a must for you! :)
Attila escaped from Romania to Hungary in 1988, clinging to the bottom of a train. He wound up in Budapest penniless and friendless, and he had a funny accent. With unswerving determination, he caught on to a championship Budapest hockey club. Once he did get a chance to show his stuff on the ice, "... it didn't take long for the team to recognize the new kid's level of talent. Zero...." He didn't get paid, but he doubled as the team's janitor. He also drove the Zamboni, until while driving drunk one night, he drove it into the stands. Desperate for some better life, and for a better place to live than the stable he had found, he got drunk, put on a wig and some mascara, and knocked off a post office. It was easy. He went on to accomplish almost thirty drunken robberies over six years, always unfailingly polite to the tellers, even bringing them roses. Capture, of course, was sooner or later inevitable, as long as Attila kept playing the robbery game, and he was eventually arrested in 1999 and put into the escape-proof downtown jail. He became a television start; in interviews, he was poised, amused, and amusing, and Whiskey Robber television specials, biographies, and t-shirts all sold well. (Some of the t-shirts toted up his score of banks: "Whiskey Robber 28, Corrupt Cops 1".) His case became, as Rubinstein writes, a referendum on the government.
It only became more so when Attila broke from prison (by means of an escape rope made of shredded sheets and shoe laces) and started robbing again, increasing the power of his legend. People refused to turn him in. Even _Sports Illustrated_ got into the act, erroneously celebrating him as "one of the best goalies in his country's top pro league." Of course he got caught again, and has stayed in prison so far. Robbing banks is surely wrong, as is boozing at Attila's level, as is losing all gains to roulette, and Rubinstein never makes the mistake of idealizing the hero of his book, no matter what degree the Hungarians have. He is a troubled and unhappy man, and a talented and ingratiating one, who was puzzled and delighted by his own fame as he made headlines in the crime pages as well as the sports pages. Attila ought to be overjoyed by this hilarious, larger-than-life book portrait, but Rubinstein has also drawn a picture of a society that was battered by communism only to be let down by the capitalist bosses who took over. The hilarious tale is thus a sad one, too, for all its absurdity; hero criminals are only needed by the downtrodden.
Not only does Rubinstein write a compelling story in its "True Crime" aspects, he also paints an accurate picture of Hungary during the time of the crime spree. His book helped take me back to my time in Hungary from 1995-1997 and some of the absurdities that existed during that time and afterward.
However, the story of Atilla Ambrus was even more compelling. Once I picked it up, I could not put it down. Now that I have read it, I can't stop telling everybody around me about it.
But when it comes to robbery, he is the indisputable king.
(In Hungary in the 1990s, anyway.)
Ballad of the Whiskey Robber is one of the best non-fiction books I've read. Ever. Hands down. In fact, it's one of the best non-fiction books I will ever read -- it's that good. By some outrageous fluke, Ballad marries truly excellent writing (that of Julian Rubinstein) to an outstanding true story (that of Whiskey Robber Attila Ambrus), a phenomenon that happens all too rarely.
Trying to find his way in the world and piece together a living, Attila Ambrus stumbles upon the fact that his quick mind is suited perfectly to robbing banks and post offices.
The story -- by which I mean the true life story, i.e., the story on which the book is based -- is itself nearly impossible to believe. When I say "nearly," just think: impossible. At numerous points throught the book, I honestly turned back to the front cover to double check the whole "true story" part, because I couldn't believe it.
Everything fits together perfectly.
Julian Rubinstein is an excellent storyteller, and Attila Ambrus is a perfect story-maker.
This is a book that you must read.
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