The story takes place in an unnamed city in the 1970s. Barton George Dawes, grieving over the death of his son and the disintegration of his marriage, is driven off the deep end when he finds that both his home and his business will be condemned and demolished to make way for an extension to an interstate highway. The major theme is the transience of human existence, and the lack of permanence as a failing of a maturing society.
The novel starts with a "man on the street" interview in which Dawes, currently unknown, gives his acidic opinion of the extension to the highway. Seemingly unaware of his own actions, he then begins to procure means to defend himself, starting with a visit to a gun shop. As the book progresses, it is revealed that his son had succumbed to an inoperable brain tumor, and that Dawes is unable (or unwilling) to sever the emotional tie between the memory of his son and the house that he grew up in. His wife is aware of the order to demolish their house and cannot understand why he is unwilling to finalize the sale, and eventually leaves him. He quits his job after sabotaging the purchase of a new facility for the laundry business he works for, which will be displaced by the construction. He begins a working relationship with a used-car dealer who has ties to the Mob, and through him purchases explosives and the use of his services to sweep his house for listening devices. He even launches an attack on the construction equipment that will be used to raze his home and build the highway, using Molotov cocktails to burn the machines. Throughout the novel, he systematically severs all his connections to the community, until the last day runs out, and his house is scheduled for demolition.
When the police come to escort him from the house, he shoots at them with the weapons he ordered from the gun shop: a .44 Magnum revolver and a .460 Weatherby Magnum rifle. The resulting exchange of fire damages a police car and attracts the attention of the media. He agrees to leave the house after a reporter (the same one who interviewed him in the beginning, though neither recognizes the other) is allowed to enter and speak to him. Once the reporter has left, Barton tosses out his guns and sets off explosives he has bought, destroying the house with him inside it.
The epilogue describes the aftermath of the standoff. Secrets are revealed about the extension, the city's attempt to try and cheat Dawes' widow out of the money she got from the sale of the house, and the fact that there was no real reason for the extension. If the city had not spent the rest of its budget on this project, it would have had its allocation for future project reduced.
In the introduction to The Bachman Books, King stated: "I think it was an effort to make some sense of my mother's painful death the year before - a lingering cancer had taken her off inch by painful inch. Following this death I was left both grieving and shaken by the apparent senselessness of it all... Roadwork tries so hard to be good and find some answers to the conundrum of human pain." King also described his disappointment with the work, and stated that he was in two minds about reprinting it but decided to in the end in order to give readers an insight into his personality at the time.
In a new introduction to the second edition of The Bachman Books King stated that he had changed his mind and that it had become his favorite of the books.