The background was a problem I thought of, but I obviously didn't take it for serious enough. It was the place where he is living and as such a sort of environmental portrait.
Nice looking subject. There's a lot of potential there.
For an environmental portrait to work, the background should provide a lot more context and information than the wall in this image. This is basically a headshot, and those almost always look better with very little in the background -- either a plain backdrop, or completely out of focus, or very light or dark.
As mentioned above, I don't want to make assumptions about the situation. However, when I'm shooting something like this, I often look for a window or a door to provide the main light on the subject, and turn off the overhead lights completely. One of the most important characteristics of light is direction - and a window or doorway provides a large light source from a pleasing direction (side, rather than overhead --as long as there isn't direct sun, of course.) Not saying that would necessarily have worked in this situation, but it's something to look for in similar portrait opportunities. Large lighting from the side is fairly easy to find in any number of places -- under a tree, or an overhang, etc.
Once you have the main light selected, you can start to think about the background -- do you want to show context for an environmental portrait? Or just let it go dark? That's when you decide on which lens to use, and start thinking about how to light the background for an environmental. Working in b+w, you don't have to worry about the color of the lights, so you can turn on selected indoor lights to provide some detail in selected areas, or have a window in the background allow in enough light for that.
Once all of that is under control, you can start looking for the "moment" -- which is, of course, extremely important, and arguably a necessary condition for a great portrait, but it's generally not sufficient by itself.
Of course, all of this assumes this is a portrait, in which you have control over the subject and the lighting, and not a candid/photo-J situation where you can't control or change anything.