Hungary's most beloved criminal, Attila Ambrus, is locked away until 2016, but even now he is interviewed on television, as a commentator on current bank robberies since he was an expert, and even the dog he had when he was free (and who will probably never see him again) makes the news now and then. Attila won't say what his immediate plans are; he says he'd "be insincere" if he made remarks about planning to escape, but he is working on getting an education, and he loves reading. He has a huge encyclopedia of Hungarian history that even mentions him as a national folk hero. This is despite his alcoholism, addiction to gambling, womanizing, and career as the worst goalie ever in professional Hungarian hockey. The bizarre story is rollickingly told in _Ballad of the Whiskey Robber: A True Story of Bank Heists, Ice Hockey, Transylvanian Pelt Smuggling, Moonlighting Detectives, and Broken Hearts_ (Little, Brown) by Julian Rubinstein. This hugely entertaining story would fail if it were fiction; Rubinstein has done lots of research, including hours of jailhouse interviews with the hero, and it is all true, but still incredible.
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.