After so many years making and protecting a life in Beirut, Robert Fisk has developed a litany of caution. By definition, cars that circle the block more than once are dangerous. Each encounter must be carefully evaluated before and after. A momentary break in gunfire can be predicted -- or at least you hope it can. And browsing is never just browsing.

"If I look in a bookstore window, I check the reflection," says the man who has covered Beirut for British newspapers for 10 years and is one of only two Western correspondents still living and working in the ravaged city. "I do it automatically. I'm always checking the reflection, in all senses."

In Lebanon much of his energy is devoted to keeping himself safe because, he says, "one thing is true. You never get a second chance in Lebanon."

He knows this after writing for the Times of London and then the Independent through a grimly newsworthy decade. "If you are kidnapped," he says, "that's it. Your life, your career, your family" -- he smacks his hands together, a small explosion of destruction. That is what happened to his colleague and friend Terry Anderson, once the Associated Press's Beirut bureau chief and now the longest-held Western hostage, whose kidnapping haunts him still. It is what happened to thousands of Lebanese, whose kidnappings and deaths he knows are all too often ignored by the outside world.

But kidnapping is only the most dramatic risk of working in that war zone. "My greatest concern over the last year was a group of Syrian gunners near our house. You would hear the rockets coming in." He lets an eerie sound leak from his lips, half whistle, half hiss. That is what it sounds like, he says, before the shells hit.

Fisk, 44, is in the United States for a brief visit, publicizing his book "Pity the Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon." A daring and eccentric character who obviously delights in the challenge of living in extremis, he decided not to follow his fellow foreign correspondents when the risks grew greater in 1986 and they started to leave. There have been days when he was too frightened to leave his apartment or even sit near a window. He and his wife, journalist Lara Marlowe of the Financial Times, slept for months in a dark, windowless corridor to escape the shelling. But still he stays.

"The reason I wanted to stay was I think Lebanon is a very important story," he says. "Here is a world where I enjoy living, where I know the story, where I am one of only two reporters on the story. I'm not trying to be unkind to my colleagues who left -- some have children. There's no necessity for a journalist to risk his life for a story if he doesn't want to."

But Fisk, or "Fisky," as his colleagues call him, wanted to. "I thought I would see if I could stay and work. There was a certain challenge to it."

At least one of his friends, Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, can empathize.

"There's a certain irrational tug the place has for people because it is such a fascinating story which also gives you a constant rush of adrenalin," says Friedman, who spent several years in Beirut with Fisk. "Some people do get hooked on their own adrenalin.

"It's like that joke at the end of 'Annie Hall.' Woody Allen says he went to a doctor and said, 'Doctor, my brother thinks he's a chicken.' The doctor says, 'That's crazy. Tell him he's not a chicken.' Woody says, 'I can't. I need the eggs.' That's like Beirut. You keep coming back because you need the eggs. It's irrational and you can't really explain it to anyone who's never been there." He doubts Fisk could leave after all these years. "He's addicted. He needs a journalistic methadone."

Even here Fisk races to keep ahead of danger. A conversation with him is no ordinary interview but a living thing that twists and coils back on itself repeatedly as the Englishman examines and reexamines what he has said, fearful of taking the wrong step.

"I can say something to you, I can clarify it, I can ensure you understand it. But then it will be picked up by a newspaper and mistranslated and someone will call someone and tell them what I've said and get it wrong. I once did an interview in which I quoted a Lebanese leader who said he was glad his father had not lived to see what had happened to the city. That was picked up and misunderstood, and eventually a radio station in Beirut opposed to that leader -- a station that does a comic bit every week -- had a song about 'I'm glad my father is dead.' "

Caution takes many forms. Fisk will not talk to Western diplomats in the region, for example, for fear that such contacts will be misunderstood by any of a number of Lebanese factions. He emphasizes whenever he can that he is a journalist, not a partisan, not a symbol for Britain. "I am very careful in Beirut to confine my work to the reporting of Arab affairs. I am a bona fide journalist" who makes an effort to talk to all sides, to "offend everyone equally," as he puts it.

Now he weaves back and forth, listening to himself, tracing the possible consequences of each phrase. It is an obsessive style of talk that seems to grow out of both experience and character. A much-admired mimic among his friends, he speeds along, adopting the accents and affectations of the people he describes, jumping through history from one bombardment to another, one anecdote to another. In the course of an interview in the lobby of the Embassy Row Hotel, he is called to the phone three times, reminds himself of un-run errands twice, darts up to his room once and generally jangles with energy and distractions throughout.

His is what one friend describes as "a personal journalism," a style more familiar in an earlier age when lone journalists wandered the world, filling their idiosyncratic "dispatches" with drama and personality. Although he covered the politics as well as the people of Northern Ireland for three years for the Times, he is not a reporter interested in policy or politicians, the stuff of hearings and briefings.

"I'm very cynical about politicians and their language," he says. That opinion is clear when he describes how the British Foreign Office has suggested -- with varying degrees of force -- to his employers that Fisk should leave Beirut. He derides those suggestions and instead turns for guidance on the state of his safety to friends and sources in Lebanon.

Lebanon, he writes in his new book, "had a near-fatal attraction to the brave, the foolhardy and to those who thrived in the half-world of civil war, who had self-consciously rejected or simply abandoned the standards by which other people lived, on the grounds that they had their own rules and codes of their own. Terry {Anderson} fell into the first category and possibly the second. His abductors -- who regarded the tactical value of his American citizenship more highly than his integrity as a journalist -- belonged to the third."

Just which category Fisk himself falls into is no doubt a matter of personal opinion.

Press him for an explanation of his motives for staying and he responds, with a certain degree of fierceness: "It's not a kick and it's not a hang-up of mine to want to be there. The gulf is filled with reporters waiting for a war. Do they have hang-ups?"

There is some degree of obstreperousness to his devotion, as if suggestions that perhaps he should leave only toughen his resolve to do the opposite.

"I think our real job is to be a witness," he says of his profession. "People hate journalists witnessing things. I think we are witnesses to history and I think we are the eyes of the outside world. If you look at Lebanon, undoubtedly the Israelis would have preferred there had been no journalists in West Beirut in '82. The Syrians would prefer no journalists, for example, investigating the killing of Lebanese and indeed the killing of their own soldiers after the fall of {Christian Gen. Michel} Aoun. Many of the militias would prefer their actions were not seen or written about."

This is his vision of his work, which along with a lyrical and pained vision of Lebanon draws him powerfully to that country.

"There's something about Lebanon. It's all things to all people. When you come to it from Saudi Arabia, you can have a drink. When you come from Europe, it's the beginning of the East, with palm trees and mystery. It's beautiful. The wind storms on the corniche. You wake up in the morning and smell the blooms and trees -- it comes in the window."

It was in that city that he worked closely with Anderson. "Terry lived -- he lived in this world, the world of bright lights and friends. Then he was gone. A tube opened into the ground -- whoomp! -- he's gone."

Immediately after Anderson was seized, Fisk organized a distribution of pictures of the American reporter. Assuming that Anderson would be taken to the Bekaa Valley, he saw that the pictures were given to every checkpoint of every faction on the road out of Beirut.

Nothing came of it all. Anderson was gone. Later Fisk heard that someone had seen him, recognized the face from a picture, but then Anderson was moved by his captors. Since then, he says, "I've had about three seconds of thinking I did it right."

In his book Fisk describes uncanny moments of intuition when he was certain he was driving by a building or a town that hid Anderson. "In a way he inhabits a different world than I do. I go about, doing my work, and I'm sure I am often near Terry."

Wherever he goes, he asks about his friend. "I'm sure Terry is alive. Every time I see anyone in Beirut who might have any information about the kidnappings or might share some of the political aims or might remotely help, I ask if there is anything I can do to help {Anderson} and I say he is a fine man, a fine journalist, a friend of mine, and should be released. That's the only grounds. I don't make political speeches. I don't take a high moral position."

Over the years Fisk has managed to get two photographs of Anderson's daughter to the hostage. "I know that because another hostage who was released saw a picture with 'Fisky' on the back." He tried to pass on a second pair of glasses as well, but that attempt, he thinks, failed.

He quickly avers that he is not suggesting that he is the only friend who has worked for Anderson's release, but "at least I'm there. He may know that I'm trying." For him, remaining in Beirut seems in many ways to be an act of faith.

Fisk surveys the marble hotel lobby, with its piped-in classical music and well-trained staff and discreet decorations. "There's a hotel in Beirut that looks somewhat like this," he says, thus deflating one preconception about what luxuries are unavailable in a city at war.

"If you're careful, most of the time you can really live quite a nice life" in Beirut, he says. "We have a beautiful apartment with a fluffy cat. You sit on the balcony overlooking the Mediterranean and drink fine wine."

He dreams of settling down in the west of Ireland and writing history books. He studied classical history and wrote a doctoral dissertation for Trinity College, Dublin, about Ireland's role during World War II. In her wallet, his wife keeps a small black-and-white picture stumbled upon in a newspaper that shows what they have decided is their perfect Irish house: old, comfortable, with room for all their books.

This is not, however, a plan for which he has set a date. Now, instead of the house in Ireland, he will take a plane back to Beirut's airport. Even a week away makes for a difficult return. "You don't have to have been out for long to have the old fear again," he says. The road into the city from the airport has been the site of kidnappings, and every time he returns home he remembers that. Of course, when he is reporting he drives the road all the time, but somehow then the fear is less.

Yet after his plane lands, that road will be momentarily new again. About such drives, when the realities of Beirut are clear in his thoughts, he says, "It's nice to reach the other end."