I. ATTILA AMBRUS, also known as "the Whiskey Robber": In the first of several dramatic ironies that would dog his life, Attila, born in communist Romania, smuggled himself, underneath a train, to slightly less oppressive communist Hungary in 1988—risking both death by border guard and death by moving train just one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall. He worked as a gravedigger and Zamboni driver and eventually forced his way onto the national Hungarian hockey team, becoming one of the worst goalies in the history of the sport. Fed up with poverty—he was living in a converted horse paddock—he started his celebrated life of crime, beginning with daring but low-profile pelt smuggling. He pulled off his first robbery, of a post office, in 1993. By 1999, when he was finally arrested, he had stolen 195,745,000 forints or, in the 1999 exchange rate, 840,000 dollars. He became a folk hero in Hungary's postcommunist kleptocracy by sticking it to the Man and was feted on TV shows, stage plays, and radio hits ("The Whiskey Robber Is King" by Budapest rapper Gangsta Zoli).
The surrounding details of Attila's life are a biographer's cherry tree: He drank—and tipped—heavily at nearby bars before every robbery; gave flowers to the bank tellers; was pursued by cops with nicknames like "Dance Instructor" and "Mound of Asshead"; once evaded capture by drunkenly passing out in a flowerbed; another time broke out of jail by lowering himself nearly 50 feet on a line of sheets, shoelaces, and telephone cables (then dropped the remaining 17 feet). Then there's the true grit of the robber himself, a fearless adventurer: When he got the aforementioned offer to smuggle pelts from Transylvania, over dangerous mountain roads, he immediately agreed, although he had never driven a car before: "He figured he would learn to drive as he went." He is now Hungary's most famous jailbird, due for release in 2016.
II. BRENDAN KILEY, who sometimes reads while drinking whiskey: Nine months ago, a year after it was published, Brendan picked up Ballad of the Whiskey Robber because of its cover—a beige, matte dust jacket with old-fashioned lit-chic caricatures, a vaguely Eastern Bloc sans-serif font, and an entrancingly long title: Ballad of the Whiskey Robber: A True Story of Bank Heists, Ice Hockey, Transylvanian Pelt Smuggling, Moonlighting Detectives, and Broken Hearts—and he has regretted it ever since. The foregoing paragraphs distill, in 315 words, all the best bits of Rubinstein's 315 pages. (Except this one, about a popular billboard in early-1990s Hungary: "On the left side of the ad was an image of Karl Marx's book Das Kapital; on the right, a photo of the IKEA catalogue. At the bottom it read, 'Which one will make your life more beautiful?'") The book is like a sparse Easter basket, with tantalizing sweet spots, but too much plastic grass in between. Brendan thought it would be easy—and fun!—to review, but in the end it took him nine months just to read it, and he skimmed the last quarter. During that time: (1) Ballad of the Whiskey Robber came out in paperback, and (2) Brendan ran across "Confessions of a Book Reviewer," the essay where George Orwell writes that being a critic is a "thankless, irritating, and exhausting job" because it requires "constantly inventing reactions toward books about which one has no spontaneous feelings whatever." In an attempt to kick-start some spontaneous feelings (which became increasingly necessary—and increasingly remote—as the editor became increasingly antsy about getting a review), Brendan called Julian Rubinstein.
III. JULIAN RUBINSTEIN, who wrote Whiskey Robber sometimes, one assumes, while drinking whiskey: Julian was at an artist's retreat in New Hampshire, working on a documentary on his father and a novel, when Brendan called. "It's a really social place," he said. "People party here." Rubinstein talked about starting his Hungarian adventure: "I didn't know shit about the place. I just saw an item in Sports Illustrated about this goalie-bank robber." He hyped his new Whiskey Robber audio book, starring Eric Bogosian, Jonathan Ames, Eugene Mirman, and Tommy Ramone ("of the Ramones"). He gushed about his Whiskey Robber screenplay (he sold the rights to Warner Brothers with Johnny Depp "attached to the project"). "But I tell you one thing," he said. "I'm definitely going to be there when he gets out of prison." He said Attila read the book: "I was nervous about that but he said I got the story right, that I was 'genius'—I was pretty psyched."
The conversation had its desired effect—spontaneous feelings were generated, though they were not about the book, and would be rude to repeat firstname.lastname@example.org