“Ballad of the Whiskey Robber,” by Julian Rubinstein. Narrated by the author, with a cast of 27 others. Unabridged, 11.5 hours. Time Warner Audio Books digital download. $39.98.
Rubinstein’s award-winning nonfiction book from 2004 is subtitled “A True Story of Bank Heists, Ice Hockey, Transylvanian Pelt Smuggling, Moonlighting Detectives, and Broken Hearts,” but even that doesn’t come close to capturing the entertaining wealth of information in the just-released audio version of the book.
The Whiskey Robber is Attila Ambrus, a Transylvanian who escapes communist Romania in 1988 for a better life in Hungary (click on YouTube video above for more about him). There, he lands an unpaid job as a backup goalie to a professional hockey team. Eventually, his desperation leads him to a life of crime. His gentlemanly demeanor and audacity, however, prompt the media to turn him into a folk hero, whose 29 bank robberies and one improbable escape from jail mock the ineffectual and corrupt post-communist government.
What Rubinstein succeeds at doing is telling Ambrus’ fascinating story with unflinching detail and affection while also portraying Hungary in a specific historical moment, the time between the fall of communism and the worldwide changes wrought by 9/11.
Rubinstein’s deadpan narration is the perfect counterpoint to the rich voices, sound effects and music by One Ring Zero, the McSweeney’s house band. The cast includes such notable performers as Eric Bogosian, Tommy Ramone, Demetri Martin and Jonathan Ames, as well as best-selling authors Gary Shteyngart, Arthur Phillips, Samantha Power and Darin Strauss.
Though some voices descend into caricature to get laughs, the production is well grounded in the rich performance by Csaba Bereczky, who performs Ambrus with a commanding gentleness.