The Chicagoist will be launching later but in the meantime please enjoy our archives.

Robber Baron

By Margaret Hicks in Arts & Entertainment on Feb 19, 2007 3:33PM

Whiskey2_19_07.jpgTruth is stranger than fiction, and if you read The Ballad of the Whiskey Robber by Julian Rubinstein, you know this cliché is right on. Ballad is the true story of Attila Ambrus, Hungarian hockey player, bank robber, pelt smuggler and political-activist-by-proxy. After smuggling himself out of Romania in 1988, Attila hooks up with the Hungarian hockey team. The team is a bunch of misfit players, and Attila is the King of the Misfits.

The book is divided into three “periods” and an “overtime.” The first period, describing the politics of Hungary and Ambrus’ history, is a bit of a slog to get through but necessary to see the rise of Ambrus as a common man struggling to make it in post-communist Hungary. The story really gets rockin’ once Ambrus gets the idea to rob banks. In Frank Abagnale style, Ambrus scouts banks and travel agencies carefully, leaves flowers for the female tellers, and leads the only honest police chief on a chase throughout the city, pulling off 27 robberies before getting caught.

His rise to folk hero status is fascinating. What started out as a desperate way to make money soon becomes a form of revenge on a government that gave Ambrus nothing to help him survive. The people of Hungary stand behind the Whiskey Robber (so called because he must get himself liquored up before each robbery) and label him a modern day Robin Hood.

When Ambrus is caught he manages to escape prison, raising his celebrity status even higher, but effectively loses his mind hiding from the police and trying to pull of just one more bank robbery. Ambrus is caught again and is still in prison serving out his 17-year prison sentence.

Rubenstein’s narration of the Whiskey Robber’s story is painstakingly told. Like we said before, some of it was a slog to get through — filled with facts and history of Hungary’s fight to be free — but it’s necessary slog and Rubenstein tells it in laymen’s terms. He has fun with Ambrus’ story which leads us to have a good time too.

As we sit here writing our review, we’re listening to the CD that came along with the book. We love mixing media; we think it’s so cool to have a CD come with our book. The CD has readings from the book by Eric Bogosian and Tommy Ramone, songs written about the Whiskey Robber and real interviews with Ambrus. Overall it was an educating and awesome experience to go along for the ride with the Whiskey Robber, and the rumor is Johnny Depp is set to play Ambrus in the movie. Yum.

You can see Julian Rubinstein on February 20 at 7:30 p.m. at Barbara's Bookstore, 1100 Lake St. If you buy the book you get a CD for free.