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Ballad of the Whiskey Robber

“Rubinstein has found a story of the sort that would make even the most dry-mouthed journalist 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 tidy narrative… With a keen eye for the ridiculous, fearlessly high-speed prose and an extraordinary wealth of reported detail, Rubinstein conducts the affair like an unusually thoughtful carnival barker.”

-New York Times Sunday Book Review (Editors’ Choice)

“One of the best books ever written about post-1989 Hungary. Arguably this is the best piece of serious literature ever written tackling the Hungarian experience in the 1990s… One of Julian Rubinstein’s best virtues is a sincere interest in, and sympathy toward, csorikaim, the little people, prone to fail, the losers. In Hungarian non-fiction, no examples of such curiosity and empathy have emerged since Gyorgy Moldova’s heyday… Ballad of the Whiskey Robber is one book in a thousand.”

-Elet es Irodalom (Hungary’s leading literary publication)

“Marvelous. This book will stand as a vivid memento of modern Budapest’s formative years.”

-The Budapest Times

“Julian Rubinstein has found what every writer craves: a larger-than-life character whose adventures veer from rollicking to comical to heartbreaking… The real beauty of Ballad of the Whiskey Robber is the way in which Ambrus’s arc and all of its attendant absurdity tends to parallel that of Eastern Europe itself: the desperation, the sense of opportunity after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Wild West euphoria, the deep-seated corruption, and finally, the brutal hangover after the long bender… Studs Terkely eat your heart out.”


“A ripper of a crime story and it’s one that can stand next to any of history’s great outlaw tales… The reporting is exhaustive, the pace is fast, and the main character is as bizarre as any you’re going to meet. Ballad of the Whiskey Robber is a fabulous read.”

-Edmonton Journal

“If all the world loves a romantic thief, the world will fall head over heels for Attila Ambrus. Fast paced and exquisitely detailed.”


“Western interests and the Russian mafia had plundered the newly privatised state assets, the economy was in freefall, and the black market accounted for 30 per cent of Hungary's GDP. Rubinstein captures this heady mix of economic anarchy, anti-capitalist resentment and a touch of sympathy for an underdog… Ballad of the Whiskey Robber is a funny and thrilling slice of modern history, told with all the charm of Butch and Sundance's flamboyant escapades.”

-The Independnet (UK)

“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. Here, the bad guys are the gentleman, the good guys are the bumblers, and nothing is quite what it seems, but that won’t keep you from laughing out loud every couple of pages. Weirdness has never been quite so winning.”


“Rubinstein has a knack for vividly portraying his stranger-than-fiction characters… By turns hilarious and incredible, this stuff just can’t be made up.”

-Maxim (5 out of 5 stars.)

“A wonderful read. Rubinstein’s account of the Whiskey Robber seems straight out of Hollywood and indeed it’s ideal for the big screen.”

-Sports Illustrated

“A whiz-bang read, hilarious and oddly touching… Rubinstein writes in a guns-ablazing style that perfectly fits the Whiskey Robber’s tale.”

“A beautifully crafted tale… In Rubinstein’s deft hands, Attila becomes a great tragicomic character… Unlike many books today that run out of energy after the first several chapters, Rubinstein keeps up the high energy, madcap comedy throughout the book.”

-Denver Post (Best Books of the Year Pick)

“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…. 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… This Jesse James–like tale has the chance to be a sleeper that transcends nonfiction categories.”

-Publisher's Weekly (*Starred Review*)

“Rubinstein has succeeded in carving out a crime niche all his own.”

-Toronto Star

“One of the best non-fiction books I will ever read. It's that good.”

-Harvard Bookstore Staff Pick

“An instant classic... At once sad and funny, Ballad of the Whiskey Robber, a rollicking tale of the Wild East, also has a deeply compelling political purpose.”

-Canada’s Globe and Mail
(A Best Book of the Year pick)

“Outrageously entertaining… An essential absurdism is never far from the surface… A rip-roaring cops and robbers saga with a Mitteleuropean heart.”

-San Francisco Chronicle

“The antagonistic protagonist of Julian Rubinstein’s picaresque romp is a real person who defies belief… Rubinstein rides the momentum in appropriately riotous fashion, but he wisely never lets his vivid style overshadow a tale that burns up the pages on its own momentum. Nor does he succumb to sentimentality when exploring the tale’s pathos—and believe it or not, there’s as much of that as there is burlesque. A memorable tragicomedy.”

-Boston Globe

“Its 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… 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.”

-The Onion, AV Club

“Julian Rubinstein’s richly enjoyable true-crime saga… Mr. Rubinstein narrates all these farcical goings-on with a sad affection peeking through, even for the dumbest and most corrupt characters. But primarily he maintains that marvelously sardonic Eastern European resignation, that ironic tone of voice that always seems to shrug and say, ‘So what did you expect?’”

-Dallas Morning News

“Grade: A. An all-too real political fairy tale… Underneath all of the action and intrigue that makes Ballad nothing short of a page-turner, there’s a subtle commentary on corruption and capitalism… With such high stakes and the story’s built-in suspense, Rubinstein’s Ballad never borders on a lackluster history lesson, nor does his attention to political injustices ever interrupt the fiction-like flow of Ambrus’s story. Though being resigned to a life of quiet desperation was Ambrus’s greatest fear, Ballad is proof that the Whiskey Robber will remain anything but irrelevant.”

-Rocky Mountain News

“Rubinstein’s chronicle is performance art, a madcap joyride alongside one of the most endearing figures in the annals of bad behavior.”

-Men’s Journal

“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. The subtitle of Rubinstein’s book, the product of three years of foreign reporting, underscores how truth is still stranger than fiction… This is a Hollywood film waiting to be made, a crazy outlaw caper from “The Wild, Wild East.”

-Seattle Post-Intelligencer

“As outrageous and entertaining as any piece of fiction in recent memory, Ballad of the Whiskey Robber is a page-turner almost too fantastic to believe and too engrossing to put down.”

-Columbus Dispatch

“Never was there a more entertaining case history of the fall of communism… Wholly enjoyable.”

-Kirkus Reviews



“Masterful… A quirky, engrossing look at the chaos of post-Cold War Hungary and the growing pains of capitalism. It is a wild ride with over-the-top gangsters, pelt smugglers and cops.”

-Newark Star-Ledger

“A book that reads like some fantastic crime novel, chronicling the very real actions of an extraordinary man trying to survive and make a lasting name for himself in transitionary times… Ballad is a rollicking crime story, a commentary on the effects of the fall of communism on the former Eastern Bloc, and a beautiful portrait of historic Budapest.”

-Small Spiral Notebook

“An extraordinary story...The pace, ingenuity and comical sense of the absurd makes this book read like a novel... told here with a hint of Louis de Bernieres and a lot of panache.”

-Daily Mail (UK)


Winner, Borders 2005 "Original Voices" Nonfiction Book of the Year

Finalist, 2005 Edgar Allan Poe Award Best Fact Crime

Finalist, 2005 Anthony Award Best Non-fiction Book

Finalist, 2007 Audie Award Best Audio Book of the Year