TOPANGA MESSENGER -- July 14, 2005

"From the Shelves of Lobal Orning… Man v. Rat In Lower Topanga Tales"

by Pa
blo Capra
Artwork by James Mathers

In the 19th century, the Brothers Grimm wandered the countryside to record folk tales as part of a larger study of German culture. They believed that the tales were important as reflections of the popular mind. Novelists and poets could articulate complex emotions and ideas, but the Grimms realized that it was the unlettered storytellers who revealed the unconscious fears and desires of a people. The dangers of traveling through deep forests, for instance, took the form of ogres and witches; and dreams of love and wealth were embodied by dashing princes and beautiful princesses in enchanted castles.

In this tradition, Brass Tacks Press recently recorded Robert “Baretta” Overby, a Topanga storyteller, and the result was published in a slim pocket-sized chapbook called “Rat Tales.”

A 28-year resident of Lower Topanga, Baretta was evicted from his home without compensation by State Parks in May. He works as a house painter and photographer for The Malibu Times, specializing in accident shots, as well as portraits of the firemen and lifeguards who deal with accidents. His stories are distinguished by their black humor and Schadenfreude.

“This is a story about Baretta, the old surfer man who lived in a shed by the beach. And it was about time that he took care of those rats that were bothering him so he couldn’t be dreaming about the perfect wave in Tahiti,” the back cover of his book explains innocently.

Inside, Baretta recounts in horrifyingly obsessive detail his attempt to eradicate a bustling rat community. At first, he uses glue traps, but as money, luck, and patience run out, he resorts to more gruesome alternatives like sticks, knives, soup cans, and even his own hands and feet! The graphic action unfolds in 25 micro chapters (or tales), each one like an appalling prose poem.

Those familiar with the history will soon realize that Baretta’s rats are symbolic of Lower Topangans and their painful experience of being evicted to make way for a park. The parallels are obvious in certain quotes like, “Why do we doom these little rats?” and “They should be given counseling by the State.”

The marginal existence of the rats especially reflects Baretta’s situation. His rickety shed with mud floors was not deemed a legal dwelling by State Parks, and eventually he was kicked out as a trespasser. Since his eviction, he has been living in his car.

But “Rat Tales” is also unique for its lightning-fast transitions between tragedy and comedy. A crude and obstreperous Falstaff, Baretta’s imaginative analysis of the rats and their behavior is hilarious: “The rats had learned to fly earlier in their childhood. Now they would just hang onto the walls, and leap to the bags of food [hanging from the ceiling]. And it was driving me crazy at night as they did acrobatics and somersaults like circus actors.”

His rats also have many positive qualities. They are called “amazing” and “valiant,” and described as being intelligent to the point of having a sixth sense. And in the end, when Baretta finally gets rid of the rats, he’s actually sad that they’re gone.

“Rat Tales” could even be considered educational in its study of different methods for catching rats. For instance, do you know about the tricks of the Mexicans?—“They capture their rats with a bucket filled with water, a little ramp leading up to a diving board, and a fresh morsel of bacon at the end.”

Or, that mousetraps are strong enough to catch a rat? “If they catch it on the nose, it’s history.”

In the process of telling his “Rat Tales,” Baretta also describes two Lower Topanga parties, and mentions several people in the community like James (“the center of freaky attention”), Christoph (“the German lad”), and an anonymous “pot-growing maniac” from Hawaii.

Rudimentary studies are also made of several other animals like lizards, ground squirrels, bobcats, coyotes, and even chupacabras!

In addition, “Rat Tales” includes nine dirty, sadistic, confrontational illustrations of rats in their death throes by Lower Topanga artist James Mathers (illustrator of “Idlers of the Bamboo Grove: Poetry from Lower Topanga Canyon,” and author of “The Children’s Guide to Astral Projection”).


“Rat Tales” is the first in a series of non-fiction prose works and oral histories that Brass Tacks Press is compiling about Lower Topanga. It is available at Lobal Orning, Topanga Video or online at

Baretta is currently working on another book in this series about his arrival in Lower Topanga in the late ’70s.

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