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.
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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.