Tuesday, April 25, 2006

13. Ballad of the Whiskey Robber

Maybe it's an ill-fated plan, but I'm going to start doing little capsule reviews of the books I'm plugging through. Call it a weak attempt to distract attention from the fact that 50 books this year is looking increasingly unlikely. Call it something else. Call it anything you like.

I'd avoided reading Julian Rubinstein's "Ballad of the Whiskey Robber" for quite a while -- I just feared disappointment. It combined two of my obsessions (Eastern Europe and hockey) with one of my hobbies (drinking). It became a best-seller. It got damn good reviews. With all that going for it, how could I hope to like it?

But read it I did, finally, and it's brilliant. Actually exceeded anything I could have reasonably expected. Briefly: it's the tale of an ethnic-Hungarian resident of Transylvania, Attila Ambrus, who fled to Hungary and became a (lousy) hockey goalie and doer of awful jobs. With his dreams not coming to fruition, he eventually turns to crime to make a liveable income, and subsequently leads the police on a merry chase.

It's funny as hell but it's not a slapstick comedy. There's a lot of care and intelligence here. The characters are well-rendered -- it would've been easier, I imagine, to just let the police be bumbling fools (they do a good job of backing up that impression), but they're more than that. Attila's girlfriends and acquaintances come through well. No cardboard cut-outs here.

Most impressive to me, though, is Rubinstein's portrayal of post-Communist Hungary. Too many books, mostly expat-penned, have touted '90s Eastern Europe as a fairy tale of wild dreams, pretty girls, and cheap beer. But the in-depth examination of what happened when the glow wore off, how society disintegrated, is illuminating. It becomes quite clear why many of the people over there grew to prefer the lost stability of stagnation to the free-market chaos.

I wanted a fast, fun read after "Europe Central." I got that, and actually learned something too. Really good stuff here.

Author's website
Amazon.com listing

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