A bank robber makes a compelling subject for a book more often than not, but it never hurts if the bank robber in question also doubles as the hard-luck goalie of a Hungarian hockey team. Or, for that matter, if he also has a side gig smuggling animal pelts from Transylvania. It's hard to imagine what journalist Julian Rubinstein thought when he stumbled across the twisted tale of Attila Ambrus, but his fascination finds riveting realization in Ballad Of The Whiskey Robber, a nonfiction account of a story that must be read to be believed. Opening with a 1999 jailbreak that caused all of Budapest to be sealed off, the book revolves entirely around Ambrus, a savvy buffoon who did whatever it took to get by in post-Communist Eastern Europe. After fleeing Romania by clinging to the bottom of a train, Ambrus arrived in Hungary in 1988, shortly before the country slipped loose of the Soviets' grip and tried to figure out what it meant to be free, democratic, and capitalist"as if a collective decision had been made to enter a Formula One race without ever having driven a car." Hard up for work, Ambrus took on a series of odd jobs, working in a glass factory, digging graves, and eventually driving the Zamboni for a professional hockey team.
Ambrus had courted his share of trouble as a youth, but his first real taste of criminal life came when he unwittingly walked into a job transporting animal pelts across the border from Transylvania. The long, dark drives were dangerous, but the black-market payoff proved huge, securing him relative high-roller status in a country where inflation had blocked out all but tourists and Western companies angling for market shares. (A billboard in Budapest asked which book would make life more beautifulKarl Marx's Das Kapital, or the Ikea catalogue?) Emboldened, Ambrus dug deeper into banditry by robbing banks, which he would hit after getting tanked on Johnnie Walker.
As more banks fell victim to the mysterious wigged thief, Ambrus became a sort of folk hero in Hungary, covered in the burgeoning tabloid media as a "gentleman robber" who some fancied as the Robin Hood of Eastern Europe. As the legend spread, Budapest's clumsy police department grew increasingly flummoxed by the crimes happening right under their noses. Rubinstein surveys the whole tale in grand storytelling fashion, following the action and the chase in entertaining detail. Ballad Of The Whiskey Robber is more than just an impressive yarn, though: Set against a rich backdrop of hope and despair, the book is a heartrending study of a character whose bungling tells the story of a world much bigger than his own.