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Ballad of the Whiskey Robber: A True Story of Bank Heists, Ice Hockey, Transylvanian Pelt Smuggling, Moonlighting Detectives, and Broken Heartsby Julian Rubinstein
Finalist, 2005 Edgar Award, Best Fact Crime
Finalist 2005 Anthony Award, Best Non-Fiction
A 2004 New York Times Editors' Choice
"The setting is Budapest, the time is the end of the last century (when communism was just giving way to a wild west-atmosphere of burgeoning capitalism), and the hero is Attila Ambrus, a.k.a. the Chicky Panther, a.k.a. the Lone Wolf, a.k.a. the Whiskey Robber....Rubinstein relates his (pleasantly, only slightly overwritten) tale with an absurdist energy appropriate to the Whiskey Robber's wild ride. His book offers that simple pleasure, a great story." Anna Godbersen, Esquire (read the entire Esquire review)
Synopses & Reviews
Ladies and Gentlemen, meet Attila Ambrus, the Robin Hood of Eastern Europe. He's the onetime pelt smugger, goaltender (possibly the worst in the history of professional hockey), pen salesman, Zamboni driver, gravedigger, church painter, roulette addict, building superintendent, whiskey drinker, and native of Transylvania who's decided that the best thing to do with his time is to rob as many banks as possible.
His rival: Lajos Varjú, the Inspector Clouseau of the Iron Curtain, whose knowledge of police work comes from Hungarian-dubbed episodes of Colombo. His deputy is nicknamed "Mound of Asshead" because of his propensity for crashing police cars. His forensics expert, known as "Dance Instructor" for his lucrative side career teaching ballet, wears a top hat and tails on the job.
Welcome to Julian Rubinstein's uproariously funny and unforgettable account of crime in the heart of the new Europe. With a cast of backup characters that includes car wash owners, exotic dancers, drunk army generals, cocaine-snorting Hungarian rappers, the Johnnie Cochran of Budapest, and a hockey team that seems to spend as much time breaking the law as they do practicing, Ballad of the Whiskey Robber gives us the most charming outlaw-hero since the Sundance Kid — and the Sundance Kid didn't play hockey.
As the Eastern bloc slips off its communist skin and replaces it with leopard-skin hot pants, Ballad of the Whiskey Robber is here to screw in the pink lightbulbs. Part Unbearable Lightness of Being, part Pink Panther, and part Slap Shot, Julian Rubinstein's tale is a spectacular literary debut — and a story so outrageous that it could only be true.
"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. (Sept. 16)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"The vivid and riveting story of Attila Ambrus, Transylvanian-born immigrant, outlaw, and gentleman, also hides a key to the still inexplicable and mad passage of communism to capitalism. This is a grand thriller, perhaps the first of a genre." Andrei Codrescu, NPR commentator and author of Wakefield
"Punchy, hilarious and apparently even true, Ballad of the Whiskey Robber gives hope to anyone who ever smuggled an animal pelt, climbed aboard a Zamboni, or pondered whether truth can be better than fiction. Mr. Rubinstein has committed a high-wire, bravado act of journalism." Gary Shteyngart, author of the best-selling novel The Russian Debutante's Handbook
"A great crime story is a strange and smudged window to peer through, to get a glimpse of life in a very specific place and time. And Julian Rubinstein has tracked down and written a great crime story. Very funny, heart-breaking, gripping, incredible, and it implies volumes more: the distillation of a people or an era, or the failings and promise of money, freedom, fame. Any novelist making this up would be duly executed. Julian Rubinstein deserves to be read, and Attila Ambrus deserves to be America?s favorite gangster-goalkeeper." Arthur Phillips, author of the best-selling novel Prague
"Ourageously entertaining...An essential absurdism is never far from the surface here...This fast-moving story is a rip-roaring cops and robbers saga with a Mitteleuropean heart." San Francisco Chronicle
"If all the world loves a romantic thief, the world will fall head over heels for Attila Ambrus...Fast-paced and exquisitely detailed." Outside
"Rubinstein has found a story of the sort that would make even the most dry-mouthed jounalist slobber. Sometimes sad, often hilarious and always absurd, Ambrus's tale microcosmically condenses the politico-historic oddities of his place and era into one entertaining and fairly tidy narrative." The New York Times (Editors' Choice)
"Robin Hood tales always entice, yet few are as madcap and captivating as this rollicking portrait of Attila Ambrus ("Whiskey Robber"), a Transylvanian refugee turned lousy pro hockey goalie turned legendary Hungarian bank robber and gentleman heartthrob in the waning days of communist rule." Seattle Post-Intelligencer
"A deadpan true story so improbable and freewheeling that it reads like a tall tale...this funny book just might make off with all your free time." Entertainment Weekly
"Never was there a more entertaining case history of the fall of communism...Wholly enjoyable." Kirkus Reviews
"Sometimes a book comes along that taxes even our best summarizing skills, but since we can't just really order you to read it (or can we?), let's just say that Julian Rubinstein's Ballad of the Whiskey Robber, the totally bizarre true story of ice hockey-playing bank robber (and pelt smuggler, grave-digger, the list goes on) Attila Ambrus is one of the quirkiest and most riveting narratives to come down the Danube this fall." Elle
"An instant classic." Globe and Mail (Toronto)
"A whiz-bang read, the hilarious and oddly touching story of Attila Ambrus." Salon
"A madcap joyride alongside one of the most endearing figures in the annals of bad behavior." Men's Journal
Elmore Leonard meets Franz Kafka in the wild, improbably true story of the legendary outlaw of Budapest. Attila Ambrus was a gentleman thief, a sort of Cary Grant--if only Grant came from Transylvania, was a terrible professional hockey goalkeeper, and preferred women in leopard-skin hot pants. During the 1990s, while playing for the biggest hockey team in Budapest, Ambrus took up bank robbery to make ends meet. Arrayed against him was perhaps the most incompetent team of crime investigators the Eastern Bloc had ever seen: a robbery chief who had learned how to be a detective by watching dubbed Columbo episodes; a forensics man who wore top hat and tails on the job; and a driver so inept he was known only by a Hungarian word that translates to Mound of Ass-Head. BALLAD OF THE WHISKEY ROBBER is the completely bizarre and hysterical story of the crime spree that made a nobody into a somebody, and told a forlorn nation that sometimes the brightest stars come from the blackest holes. Like The Professor and the Madman and The Orchid Thief, Julian Rubinsteins bizarre crime story is so odd and so wicked that it is completely irresistible.
About the Author
Julian Rubinstein has written for the New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, Details, Sports Illustrated, Salon, The Washington Post and others. His work has been selected for The Best American Crime Writing anthology and twice cited by The Best American Sports Writing. Raised in Denver, he lives in New York. This is his first book.
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