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Ballad of the Whiskey Robber

by ExperiencePlus! - Tuesday, July 27, 2010 reviews

Ballad of the Whiskey Robber: A True Story of Bank Heists, Ice Hockey, Transylvanian Pelt Smuggling, Moonlighting Detectives, and Broken Hearts

By Julian Rubinstein

You won’t believe it’s true.

With a title like that, who wouldn’t be skeptical?  Open the cover and before the first paragraph even begins you get a cast of characters who seem so eccentric that they must be fictional.  What factual story involves a ballet-dancing detective, a national police chief, the host of a hit television show, and an entire professional hockey team?  One of the forwards is also a video-tape salesman, used car dealer and toy-store stock boy.  Another is a 24-hour mini-mart owner, and yet another works part-time as a coroner’s assistant.  And then, more outrageous than the rest, the Zamboni-driver-turned-goalie and the hero of the plot, Attila Ambrus: “goalie, church painter, gravedigger, animal-pelt smuggler, serial bank robber, folk hero.” 

Implausible as it all seems, the whole thing actually happened, Bernese mountain dogs and all.  Julian Rubinstein’s “Ballad of the Whiskey Robber” tells the story of real-life Robin Hood and Hungarian legend Attila Ambrus with incredible detail and story-telling skill.  Both comical and tragic, this fast-paced book will have you turning the pages wide-eyed.

You’ll Root for a Thief.

Rubinstein begins in July of 1999, on the humid morning when Attila escapes from the Budapest jail.  The police hit the streets but most of Hungary cheers him on, and as you read you’ll find the Whiskey Robber endearing too. 

After his prologue, Rubinstein takes us back to 1988 to the start of it all.  Attila escapes the horrible conditions in Romania to the less-horrible conditions in Hungary by riding flattened underneath a train.  Next he finagles a position with Hungary’s championship pro hockey team, UTE (Újpesti Torna Egylet or Újpest Gym Association), although he cleans the locker room more than he guards the net.  Attila eventually finds the funds to move out of the horse paddock in which he lives by smuggling pelts from Romania, and then graduates to robbing banks so he can pay for Ferraris and trips to Egypt. 

He’s got a style of crime like none other.  He wears cheap wigs and mascara mustaches.  He brings flowers to the bank tellers as he commands them to empty their drawers.  He never hurts anyone and is described by bank workers as “charming” and “polite.”  What’s not to like?

You’ll ask “how could he get away with it?”

Attila was often spotted gulping down whiskey in a nearby bar just before his robberies and was sometimes so drunk that he barely got away, but he seemed to have a knack for eluding the police.  Still, as Rubinstein himself said, “the story of the Whiskey Robber couldn’t have happened at any other time or place in history.”  After a rich explanation of Hungary’s tumultuous past, Rubinstein explains how the conditions in Eastern Europe in the Post-Communist 1990s involved the lack of development that made simple robberies like Attila’s possible.  Budapest, although modernizing and full of opportunity, was also a place of extreme poverty, corruption, and a disorganized police force.  Rubinstein’s insights on the political and economic situation in both Hungary and Romania also help one understand why the Whisky Robber would be considered a hero in contrast to a corrupt government. 

You’ll wonder how he got the story.

Rubinstein relays the events of Attila’s escapades with such detail that you might question how he could possibly write with such specifics.  But the American journalist spent three years working on this book, conducting interviews and sifting through news clips, TV archive footage and tens of thousands of court and police files.  The result of all that research is a book that reads like fiction, telling a fantastic tale with astounding familiarity with the place, the people involved, and the thoughts of the Whiskey Robber himself.  After its publication in 2004 the book quickly became a national bestseller, a New York Times Editor’s Choice, and the recipient of countless other awards.  Warner Brothers also plans to make a movie about the Whiskey Robber, starring Johnny Depp as Ambrus.

You’ll want to see where it all happed.

Rubinstein skillfully conjures images of the banks of the Danube, the bustle of  Budapest, and the rural landscape of Romania.  If reading this whirlwind tale set in Hungary has you itching to see the place for yourself, join one of our Eastern European tours.  Ride through the countryside of Romania on our Pedaling the Heart of Transylvania tour or see the city where Attila “earned” his fame and fortune on our Krakow to Budapest tour.  If you’re up for a bigger challenge, join the ExpeditionPlus! from St. Petersburg to Istanbul and you’ll have the chance to pedal through both Hungary and Romania, as well as the rest of Eastern and Central Europe. 

Even if you’ve already selected other touring destinations this year, check out this book.  By the time you’re done with the Ballad of the Whiskey Robber you’ll understand: this story is so unreal that no one could make it up.